Cambodian parties scramble ahead of polls but ruling party rests easy

PHNOM PENH – At Cambodia’s ramshackle opposition headquarters, party workers scramble to wrap up their month-long election campaign, in marked contrast to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), whose offices remain quiet.

Most of the fifteen full-time workers in the cabinet office of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), along with a half-dozen party faithful flown in from overseas for the campaign flit between humming computers, faxes and telephones.

They’re making the most of the two days remaining in the campaign ahead of Sunday’s national polls, which Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP is expected to overwhelmingly win.

"Basically we have been receiving calls from supporters and other people in the provinces reporting to us what’s happening in their communes, districts, village," says Ung Bun Ang, chairman of the SRP management committee.

But workers are also dealing with complaints of violence and intimidation.

Although this election campaign has been hailed as the most peaceful yet, critics charges that politicians have become more cunning when deploying intimidation tactics to secure votes.

"We have filed about 60 complaints with the NEC (National Election Committee) and most of them are about threats and intimidation," Ung Bun Ang says.

Photocopies of a threatening text message sent to a trade union leader with strong links to the SRP are passed around and scrutinised before being sent as an e-mail attachment in a complaint to the interior ministry and NEC.

"It’s the advancement of technology, they’re making the best use of it to deliver their threats," Ung Bun Ang quips.

Outside, workers dodge darting chickens and muddy puddles as they assemble a marquis to cover hundreds of plastic chairs for activists visiting over the hectic election period.

Across town at the royalist FUNCINPEC headquarters, construction workers are putting the final touches to the pagoda housing a sparkling new statue of King Norodom Sihanouk, the 80-year-old monarch who founded the party.

As a speaker blares warbling Cambodian tunes across the courtyard, members of the junior partner in an uneasy coalition with the CPP are also knuckling down for the final campaign run.

Much of the work here, says FUNCINPEC’s international relations official Chhim Narith, is taken up by some 70 members who sit at carefully labelled tables calling districts nationwide from their mobile phones, checking on campaign progress.

Much of their time is also taken up with voter complaints.

"These people are being told not to vote for FUNCINPEC, or if you do, you will not get any gifts or donations," he says, adding that more than 150 complaints over electoral intimidation have been forwarded to the NEC, while nearly 100 violence-related complaints have been referred to police.

The scene is a world away from the CPP headquarters, the flashest of the three party compounds, surrounded by an imposing freshly-painted fence and fluttering national flags.

All appears quiet as a lone guard turns away outsiders who do not already have a prior appointment.

Hun Sen has not actively campaigned during the period in a bid to keep violence down — and some say, because he is confident of a win — although he has made a point of being seen doing development work in the lead-up to the polls.

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