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Campaign Season Has Begun, Unofficially, Monitors Note

A woman holds a poster bearing the logo of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) during a protest demanding a free and fair general election, May 20, 2013.

A woman holds a poster bearing the logo of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) during a protest demanding a free and fair general election, May 20, 2013.

Election monitors and analysts say the ruling party and the opposition have begun an unofficial campaign, as a war of words heats up well ahead of the official campaign period.

In recent weeks, Prime Minister Hun Sen and top opposition official Kem Sokha have engaged in a public debate, using speeches and the media to attack each other and to push their parties’ agendas. In the latest round, Hun Sen says he supports a demonstration against Kem Sokha, who has become embroiled in a controversy after statements he allegedly made about the Khmer Rouge torture center of Tuol Sleng.

Ruling party officials say they have a recording of Kem Sokha, who is the vice president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, claiming that the Vietnamese had staged or exaggerated the atrocities that took place at the Khmer Rouge prison, angering some victims of the regime.

The controversy comes ahead of an official campaign period, but election monitors say the most recent spate of verbal attacks marks an unofficial beginning to the election season. It also coincides with the drafting of a ruling party strategy document for the elections in direct response to the opposition.

This week, Hun Sen said he would support a demonstration that demands an apology from Kem Sokha over his alleged Tuol Sleng comments. Critics say the prime minister is attempting to discredit the opposition ahead of July’s national elections by stoking anger over the alleged remarks.

“A huge demonstration will happen, and not just in Phnom Penh, but in the whole country, if the person doesn’t make an apology,” Hun Sen said at a pagoda inauguration in Kampong Cham Wednesday. “I can’t stop people from doing a demonstration, but I hope people will start a peaceful, non-violent one.”

Kem Sokha, who left Cambodia for the US this week, has been asked to make a public apology regarding his alleged remarks. Chum Mey, an outspoken survivor of the Tuol Sleng torture center, has called for an apology within 10 days or he says he’ll organize a demonstration.

Hun Sen said it is not the Cambodian People’s Party that will organize the demonstration.

But Ou Virak, head of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the encouragement of a public demonstration against the opposition is designed as a political maneuver for the upcoming July elections.

Yem Bunharith, an official from the Rescue Party, said it was unusual for a prime minister to support such a demonstration.

And Kim Ley, an independent political researcher, said that while politicians should apologize when they make mistakes, the government also has a duty to ensure that demonstrations are safe. Those in power, however, should not encourage them, he said. Without proper control, demonstrations can be dangerous, he said.

Hun Sen’s call for a demonstration, and the accusations against Kem Sokha, come as the country gears up for an election campaign that officially begins a month ahead of the July 28 vote.

But Hang Puthea, executive director for the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said the the war of words marks the kickoff to a type of unofficial campaigning.

The “political heat of politicians who use bad words at each other” could bore the public, he said, as some attacks are seen as personal, and not political. Some election irregularities have already taken place, he said, as in the countryside political signboards are being destroyed.

This election has already seen heavy pressure for the reform of the National Election Committee, which opposition leaders say is biased toward the ruling Cambodian People’s Party. The NEC has dismissed these claims and refused to reform, which could lead the way to contested election results, Hang Puthea said.

Meanwhile, as Hun Sen has continued to attack the opposition in numerous public speeches in recent weeks, the Cambodian People’s Party has drafted a major strategy document for the July election.

The “Spiritual Aid Document” details the ruling party’s policies and achievements and will serve as a handbook for ruling party supporters across the country, officials say. It includes positions on peace-building, social order, defense of the monarchy, restoration of Buddhism, defense of Cambodian sovereignty and economic development, among others.

The handbook, a draft of which was obtained by VOA Khmer, states that it is to be used to help campaigners pick and choose the best “ingredients” for local constituencies and will help with direct responses to opposition attacks.

It notes that the CPP is the most recognizable party, giving it an advantage. And it says that under Hun Sen, the economy has grown, despite the global economic crisis. It notes a tourism increase of 39 percent since the 2008 election, and revenue bump from $1.5 billion to $2.2 billion. It highlights the number of schools built—6,910 primary, 1,214 middle and 433 high schools. It also notes as talking points the CPP’s dedication to fighting corruption and illegal immigration, and says that the opposition’s promises are often empty.

Chheang Vun, a senior ruling party lawmaker, said the party is establishing a plan for the election campaign, in part to counter opposition messages he said are reactionary or discriminatory.

“Sometimes the opposition officials falsify the truth and are mocking in a way to incite during the campaign, and that is what has happened so far,” he said. “They link the Cambodian People’s Party to Vietnam, and link the CPP to lost territory and other issues. What we have done is liberate the country from a genocidal regime. Although there were Vietnamese volunteer troops, they left Cambodia and went peacefully back to their country. This was a huge victory, in that we led the country out of war following the genocidal regime.”

Pre-election tension is “normal,” he said. “For me, I understand that challenges like this are better that holding weapons to kill one another.”

However, Kem Sokha told VOA Khmer this week that it is the CPP that has not been honest with the people.

Their statements “have a lot of weak points” he said. And policywise, the CPP has failed to beat back corruption, has not properly enforced immigration laws, has failed to provide proper healthcare to people and failed to create enough jobs.

“These are the issues we are concerned with, and we aren’t making them up,” he said.

“The CPP is a dead end and cannot beat us,” he said. “That’s the reason they are playing naughty tricks of defamation, calling this or that person to speak out against the opposition on television, and creating all kinds of threats against us.”

The CPP won 90 of 123 seats in the 2008 election, giving it a sweeping majority in the National Assembly. The Rescue Party, which combines supporters of the Sam Rainsy and Human Rights parties, among others, hopes to gain more seats or even win the election outright in July.

Yim Sovann, a Rescue Party spokesman, said the CPP “twists the truth every time.” The ruling party is borrowing money from abroad and taking money from donors on behalf of the people. And because they control most of the broadcast media, ruling party supporters are able to push out CPP messages, he said.

“They falsify all the truth because they control the television system and hundreds of radio stations,” he said. “They falsify the truth and confuse people. This is an element that causes tension and prevents a free and fair election.”

Both Yim Sovann and Kem Sokha said the role of the opposition is to create checks and balances within the government, to help pass laws in parliament, to protect the interests of the people and to protect people’s rights at the grass roots.

For his part, Kem Sokha urged people not to believe exaggerations by the ruling party—including threats by Hun Sen that the country could devolve into war with an election upset.

“There will not be a war when the Cambodia National Rescue Party wins, because the party does not have armed forces, we do not have weapons and we are not making enemies of any Cambodians,” he said. “We want national unity and we want to solve national issues.”