PHNOM PENH: The Hun Sen Boulevard in Phnom Penh was flooded with a sea of people on Friday (Jun 2) as tens of thousands of Cambodians gathered from dawn to welcome a special guest.
Circling in the sky above their heads was a helicopter and a drone, deployed to capture the final campaign moments of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) before the commune election on Sunday.
After two hours waiting in the scorching sun, their VIP arrived in a truck. Cheers and claps broke out as Prime Minister Hun Sen appeared.
Dressed in a blue polo shirt and grey trousers, the prime minister was all smiles. He slowly waded through crowds of excited supporters to a podium, where he called on the nation to vote for his party.
“Please, everyone, vote for us. Vote for the CPP to continue the development and peace.”
Those two words – development and peace – dominated the speech, which went on for more than an hour. It was a reminder to the people that without the CPP and without his leadership, they would not have escaped the genocidal regime of the Khmer Rouge or enjoyed the security and progress the country has achieved.
“Peace and development was restored in this poor land through great sacrifices of our party. And which party was by our side when we were making success from nothing? None.”
His message is clear: Cambodia has come so far because of the CPP, and them alone. Therefore, for the country to move forward and for peace to remain, Cambodians have to vote for his party.
THE OLD VS THE NEW
For politicians, Sunday's poll is more than just a process to elect local officials. It is a popularity test whose result could hint at the likely winner of next year’s general election.
This year, 12 political parties are contesting nearly 12,000 seats in 1,646 communes. But in reality, it is a two-party fight. They are Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party and Kem Sokha’s Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which will be participating in the commune election for the first time since it was founded in 2012.
While the CPP has urged voters to hold on to the established stability for continued development, the CNRP has called for the end of the old regime on a platform of change, transparency and decentralised power.
For 32 years, Cambodia has been under the sole leadership of Hun Sen and his party. The nation once troubled by civil wars now boasts one of the fastest growing economies in Asia. Roads, infrastructure, water and electricity have reached many areas across the country. Foreign investments are pouring in. And its capital Phnom Penh is bustling with businesses and development projects.
Economically, the future looks bright for Cambodia. Yet, the country is not without challenges. Reports of human rights abuse, corruption and impunity among well-connected people still continue to surface.
Before his Friday’s speech, Mr Hun Sen warned of civil war if his party is to lose any election in the future. He also said any protests against the election would be met with a military crackdown – a reference to protests against the previous general election’s result in 2013, when his party beat the CNRP.
In 2013, the ruling party claimed victory amid alleged voting irregularities. The move drove many opposition supporters to the streets, where clashes with police broke out and casualties ensued.
Asked if violence is possible in coming days, CPP party spokesman Sok Eysan told Channel NewsAsia that only “undemocratic anarchists” would face a crackdown.
“If the CPP wins the election and there are protests like in 2013, we must crack down on them. The violence won’t be against the people but the force that protests and tries to rob the power from an elected government,” he said.
On Sunday, the people of Cambodia will arrive at a political junction, where they have to decide which road to take: the old or the new. And whatever the majority decides, there will be consequences.
HUN SEN’S RARE APPEARANCE
While the CNRP believes it will secure at least 60 per cent of the seats, the CPP is confident it will win in a landslide.
“If we're talking about how many seats we’ll win, it may sound like a lie. But we do feel optimistic and hopeful that we’ll win 100 per cent,” Eysan said.
Looking back at the previous commune election in 2012, his confidence is not altogether groundless. Five years ago, his party claimed 62 per cent of the total votes while the former opposition Sam Rainsy Party - which later merged with Sokha’s Human Rights Party to form the CNRP - gained 21 per cent. As a result, the ruling party now has 1,592 commune chiefs out of 1,633 nationwide.
However, that may change this coming Sunday, given what happened in the 2013 general election. Despite being victorious, the CPP’s presence in the 123-seat National Assembly shrank from 90 spots to 68. The seats it lost were picked up by the CNRP, which secured 55 seats in the national poll.
As the commune elections are seen as an important benchmark of what might happen in 2018, efforts have been taken by political parties to ensure there is no dent in their popularity. For two weeks, Sokha toured the country’s 25 provinces in a nationwide election campaign. Hun Sen’s appearance was his first in any election campaign since 1998.
The opposition camp saw it as a sign it had the prime minister worried, but he said otherwise.
“Today, we’re gathering to support our candidates from 1,646 communes and to take part in protecting peace in the country. We won’t let bad people destroy it.”
SHIFT OF POWER
Worried or not, Mr Hun Sen did not show it in his Friday speech. He highlighted the party’s past achievements and plans for Cambodia’s future, where its economic status would move up from the lower-middle income bracket into the developed category by 2050.
“Most of us won’t be here by then but our party has already laid out a plan for the future. We have to do more. We have to work more efficiently to meet the people’s needs,” he told his supporters.
If his party remains in power, he added, more Cambodian workers would get to work abroad and earn more money. The government has so far helped secure 40,000 jobs in South Korea, he said, and is in the process of expanding Cambodia’s labour market in the Middle East.
“The opposition has done nothing but trying to stop foreign aid, preventing foreign investments, and telling the EU not to import Cambodian garments. Do you call this killing or improving our labour’s living standard?”
Before ending his speech, he mentioned a possible shift of power into the hands of the younger generation in the future. But it comes with a condition.
“It will definitely go to the children and grandchildren of the CPP, not others.”
Follow Pichayada Promchertchoo on Twitter @PichayadaCNA.