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Polls open in Cambodian elections

©

Latest update : 2008-07-27

The polls have opened in Cambodia, with the Cambodian People's Party, which has been in power for 29 consecutive years, expected to broaden its majority against a backdrop of a booming economy and heightened nationalism.

Eight million Cambodians are voting Sunday in a multi-party election that’s expected to consolidate the 29-year-long rule of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen over the national parliament.

 

“People can say whatever they want,” Hun Sen told FRANCE 24 earlier this month. “What matters is whether people like Hun Sen or not.”

 

Hun Sen, a lapsed communist and astute politician who has been in power since 1985, has taken credit for the country’s pacification after the civil war that followed the fall of the Khmer Rouge. He can also boast a good economic record with growth rates reportedly averaging 11% over the last few years.

 

The IMF recently acknowledged Cambodia’s good performance, Olivier Guillard, an Asia specialist at the Institute of International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) pointed.

 

“Although it will likely suffer a setback due to the increasing inflation, its growth will remain robust in the next year,” he said.

 

 “Hun Sen is Cambodia’s best guarantee that today’s stability will last,” explains FRANCE 24’s correspondent Cyril Payen. “He’s the man who put an end to the civil war and people know it.”

 

Preah Vihear, a distraction from national issues

 

 

But some local observers are concerned that the atmosphere of soaring nationalism fueled by the border dispute with Thailand over the Preah Vihear Temple may have diverted attention from more pressing issues such as the fight against corruption or the rising inflation.

 

“The Preah Vihear military standoff has attracted much of the attention of voters. Hence, bringing voters’ attention back to the elections is absolutely crucial,” Mr. Thun Saray, President of Committee for Free and Fair elections in Cambodia’s Board of Directors (COMFREL) was quoted saying in a statement.

 

The XIth century Buddhist temple, which was just listed as one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites this month, was awarded to Cambodia in 1962 by the International Court of Justice. A decision Thailand never accepted.

 

“In Cambodia as in Thailand, the dispute is mostly an issue of internal politics which politicians have been building up for electoral reasons,” Payen confirmed.

 

"The level of uncertainty is minimal"

 

By all accounts, Hun Sen very much hopes to tighten the CPP grip on Parliament. “The level of uncertainty is minimal,” said Guillard.  “The main question is to whether the CPP will improve its 2003 score. They are reportedly aiming for something between 75 and 85 seats” - up from his current 73 seats.

 

The CPP’s main contender is the Party of Sam Rainsy (PSR), a former finance minister who campaigned against Cambodia’s rampant corruption. He could benefit from the internal divisions that have left the CPP’s former coalition partner, the royalist FUNCINPEC party, weakened.

 

“The final results depend on the degree of manipulation,” Rainsy, who complained that he didn’t have access to broadcast media, told Newsweek Magazine.  “If we can prevent, resist or overcome this, we will have more votes than last time.”

 

A number of international observers will be monitoring the polls after a campaign, which local NGOs say has been marred by violence and intimidation against voters. Six people rare reported to have been murdered since the beginning of the electoral campaign.

 

However “the number of cases of murder, intimidation, threats and irregularities in these elections is lower than in previous elections,” the COMFREL said in its statement.

 

Ideal timing

 

Already convinced of its impending electoral victory, the CPP has called for a new meeting between Cambodia and Thailand on July 28 - the day after the elections - to find a solution to the military buildup around the temple both countries claim as their own.

 

The first trial of Khmer Rouge leaders in a UN-backed court should get underway in October, a timing that could spare the CPP some embarrassing revelations about the possible ties between the party and the former rulers.

 

Hun Sen, who briefly served as a foot soldier under the Khmer Rouge, went as far as claiming credit for the trials. “I negotiated this trial directly with [then UN Secretary General] Kofi Annan,” Hun Sen claimed in the FRANCE 24 interview. “In Cambodia, if you don’t have Hun Sen’s signature, nothing gets done.”

Date created : 2008-07-27

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