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Land, Borders Reemerge as Top Issues for 2013 Elections

An election campaign poster of Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party hangs on the back of a motorized rickshaw parked at a blocked street in front of the Royal Palace in Phnom Penh.

Border sovereignty and landlessness are likely to be the two most politically important issues of this election.

WASHINGTON DC - With national elections less than a year away, ruling party officials have begun a publicity campaign to show they are tackling tough issues facing the country, such as border delineation and land grabs, but opposition leaders say the Cambodian People’s Party cannot claim it has solved the issues itself.

Without the opposition to push the issues, the ruling party would “sit on its hands” and not resolve national issues, said Kem Sokha, president of the Human Rights Party and soon-to-be vice president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party.

Border sovereignty and landlessness are likely to be the two most politically important issues of this election, election observers say, with both sides trying to capitalize on them.

Kem Sokha said the issues help the opposition, even if the ruling party is perceived to be handling them.

“If this is the result of what the government does, and the ruling party clarifies and acts successfully, people will understand that success is the success from what the opposition has raised up,” he said.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party hopes to pull more votes for parliamentary seats in the upcoming election. This would mean even more checks and balances on the ruling government, he said.

Meanwhile, if the government shows it is incapable of solving the issues, this shows the ruling party “has no real intention, no ability and no will to address the issues,” he said. “So people must change the ruling party and incumbent leaders by switching to the opposition party to hold power.”

In national speeches and an appearance before the National Assembly in recent weeks, Prime Minister Hun Sen has sought to allay concerns about territorial loss in a border deal with Vietnam and to promote greater resolution of the ongoing land grabs that have pushed impoverished villagers from land concessions and private development projects.

In a speech in Phnom Penh this week, Hun Sen attacked unnamed critics who would accuse him of discussing the issues for political gain. “If I do it just to let people curse me, I don’t need to do it,” he said. “People are satisfied. They benefit. And they support us. That is the work we must do.”

On national TVK, he also sought to clarify border concerns, saying that border demarcation with Vietnam could include a mutual exchange of villages, but that this would not mean the loss of land overall. “The choices of cutting Cambodia’s village for Vietnam and cutting Vietnamese villages to Cambodia are impossible options,” he said. When people have lived in certain areas since the times of their ancestors, and when they have graves there, he said, moving them is not an option. But adjusting the border is, he said.

Hun Sen has also said he will use a brigade of youths to ensure land deals are legal. “No country does like this,” Kem Sokha said. The government “has an institution to work on this issue. Why not use that institution?” Youths can be manipulated or intimidated by “land grabbers,” he said.

Sok Touch, dean of Khemarak University, said the border and land issues are like “political waves” that come up around election time. “So politicians, they have studied this and they know that the land issues and border issues are important for the fight in 2013, because the economy cannot push [voters],” he said.

The ruling party has the upper hand, he said, because it can claim it is seeking solutions, so long as the opposition cannot find clear evidence to the contrary.

The ruling party also has an advantage in its local grassroots structures, which are widespread and well entrenched, said Puthea Hang, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections. The opposition political machine remains fragmented, he said. The ruling party can claim success in the construction of infrastructure like roads and bridges, or large buildings, he said. “For the opposition parties, they’ve seemed to have already used sovereignty and land problems as a strategy in campaigning against the ruling party.”

Kem Sokha said such issues, along with immigration, unemployment, poverty, health and education need to be raised before the election. The Cambodia National Rescue Party will release its new strategy for these before the July 28, 2013, election, he said.