Cambodians go to the polls early next month to elect more than 12,000 district officials, but the ballot is also shaping-up as a showdown between the two major parties amid threats of civil war and a crackdown on political dissent in the lead-up to national elections slated for the middle of next year.
For Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party (CPP) believe the communal poll on June 4 will provide an important litmus test of their popularity, which has been under stiff pressure from a burgeoning youth vote and changing attitudes.
As campaigning got underway, government spokesman Phay Siphan said these commune elections would cement a culture of pluralism at the local level and ensure Cambodia's status as an open society. But he said the polls would be fought on more mundane, every day issues.
“Importantly, the middle class has been expanding. The people, they do have clean water, electricity, school, health. Of course it's not enough but its improved from year to year,” he said. “We have a middle class that needs to grow.”
He said there were reports of one small confrontation between supporters from both major parties since campaigning officially began on Saturday, but it broke-up quickly. He also defended his government's crackdown on dissenters, saying it was a matter for the law and the courts but people were free to criticize.
“We don't crackdown because of the politics of suppression – no. We crackdown, they have their own cause, they have their own motives so we have to challenge with the law,” he said in regards to the jailing of opposition supporters.
“Those people, they commit against the law – so they have to respect Cambodian law, they have to respect the court,” he said.
Supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) have been buoyed by their party's standing at national elections in 2013 when the ruling CPP was returned to power, but with its majority reduced to 68 seats, from 90, in the 123-seat National Assembly.
The CNRP scored 55 seats, annihilating all the smaller parties in its path, after Cambodia's youth sided with the opposition and demanded change. More than 70 percent of this country's population is under the age of 30, a legacy of a post-war baby boom.
Bo Pao, Executive of Youth Education for Development and Peace (YEDP), said differences between young and old were taking its toll. Older voters are attracted to the security provided by the CPP, which ended the wars in 1998 and ensured a peace that has enabled economic growth.
“Some elderly tell their children that they do not want to see war so they would rather stick with the status quo,” he said. “It is hard to predict what is going to happen or what kind of result there will be but often, most of the time, we have political deadlocks after elections.”
Local vote, local issues
The local nature of these elections has not stopped Hun Sen from weighing in at the national level, warning Cambodia could return to war if the CPP was to lose. Politics has also been marred by the beating of opposition parliamentarians, criminalization of defamation laws and banning anyone with a criminal conviction from contesting elections.
Defamation suits and the constant threat of prison prompted opposition leader Sam Rainsy to resign and return to self-imposed exile in France with his deputy, Kem Sokha, taking up the leadership role of the CNRP.
Hun Sen has also curtailed political street rallies.
Son Chhay, a senior CNRP figure, wants to see gains from 2013 reflected at the commune level, though he said commune elections were notoriously difficult to predict and he declined to put a figure on how many seats on district counsels he expected to win.
“As you know we have encountered so many threats, starting from the threat of war,” Son Chhay said. “We do not know how this kind of intimidation will effect people's ability to vote freely.
Hopes for a peaceful ballot
The U.S. State Department has called on the government to avoid threats and political intimidation.
But hopes are high that there will be no repeat of the violence that followed the 2013 general election, when at least five people were killed.
Son Chun Chuon, Program director at Khmer Kampuchea Krom for the Human Rights and Development Association said this year's commune elections were better organized than previous efforts following reforms to the National Election Committee (NEC).
He added NEC reforms were inclusive of both political parties, international donors and the European Union. Observers from all parties will be present while the CPP and CNRP had softened their often belligerent attitude towards each other.
“I don’t think that violence will happen, even if the message from the prime minister is about war – that did raise fears in people,” Son Chun Chuon said.
About 12,000 local positions, including commune chiefs and district counselors, will be contested by 12 political parties.