Cambodia’s premier enters campaign fray as opposition predicts victory

By: Euan Black - Posted on: May 24, 2017 | Cambodia

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s shock decision to march with his party in an upcoming campaign parade led to speculation his party feared significant losses in the upcoming elections, but analysts say the ruling party is still likely to win – by hook or by crook

Supporters of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) gather during a campaign for the Cambodian local commune elections in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 20 May 2017. Photo: EPA/Mak Remissa

Abandoning his traditional strategy of avoiding direct involvement in political campaigns, Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen announced in a Facebook post yesterday that he would join his party’s closing march for the ongoing local election campaign.

In 1998, Hun Sen said his time was better served overseeing campaigns from afar, rather than hitting the campaign trail, and he has largely stuck to his word. But ahead of elections on June 4 that will be closely watched as a test of the country’s political leanings ahead of national elections next year, the long-ruling leader has had a change of heart.

“His presence during the march will give people confidence about the future of the country, and [confidence] that Cambodia’s economy will continue to grow rapidly and our people will enjoy better living conditions,” said Suos Yara, a spokesman for the Cambodian People’s Party.

Yara, who is also a lawmaker, brushed off suggestions that Hun Sen’s decision demonstrated the CPP feared losing a significant number of commune chief posts in the upcoming election, during which roughly 12,000 local positions will be contested by 12 political parties.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party is the only other party contesting the CPP in every commune, and remains its only legitimate challenger in the upcoming national election.

On the same day of the prime minister’s announcement, Kem Sokha, the president of the CNRP, told the Phnom Penh Post that his party was aiming to win more than 60% of the popular vote.

“Our policies have hit the hearts of the people, because who does not want to develop their own communes?” he said. “This is a policy that the ruling party has never dared [to implement] for a very long time.”

Political analyst Cham Bunthet said to Southeast Asia Globe that while he expected the CNRP to make some gains in the election, Sokha’s target was unrealistic.

“I cannot say that the CNRP will win these elections,” he said. “If the voter turnout is large then I can say that possibly the CNRP will go up to 45%.”

However, Bunthet said he expected a low turnout as young people, who were more likely to vote for the CNRP, did not consider voting in the commune elections important enough to take time off from work and travel back to their home provinces.

“A lot of people do not see the election as important… I think [migrant] workers would choose to work rather than go home to vote,” he said. “The CPP will benefit from that.”

Cambodians under 30 make up of two-thirds of the population and their expanding influence was instrumental in helping the CNRP win the largest number of seats an opposition party has won in a national election since 1993.

But even if the CPP did lose the popular vote, Bunthet said, they would manipulate the results so that they keep most of the power at the local level.

“What I see is that if the CPP loses this election, the CPP will win actually because they can not afford to lose it. If they lose, they will do anything they possibly can to win the election,” he said. “Maybe they will shut down the TV, and announce another result.”

Yara also envisioned a CPP victory, albeit a legitimate one.

“I strongly believe that our commune…chiefs are much more qualified than their opposition counterparts in developing their community and improving the living condition of their people,” he said.

“With more than 6 million strong supporters, there is no doubt that the CPP will win this election.”