I woke up in Phnom Penh one morning a few weeks ago to a loudspeaker blasting high pitched Khmer music and the sound of a voice repeating the same phrases over and over. I immediately assumed it was a wedding since waking up in Cambodia to abusively loud screeching music tends to indicate a wedding on the street in the near vicinity. I went out on to the balcony to check out exactly how close the wedding was, and was surprised to see hundreds of people on motorbikes and pick up trucks streaming past waving flags and wearing matching yellow t-shirts. Huh. It is officially campaign season in Phnom Penh!
Cambodia is voting in a national election on Sunday the 27th of July, 2008. The campaign season is festive, with chaotic truck, car, and motorcycle parades through the city blasting music and speeches, platform trucks camping out on main roads chanting party slogans and gathering a crowd of party t-shirt clad supporters, and spirited comments from most parties reported in local newspapers. Supporters who participate in the parades and gatherings are generally offered free lunch and/or dinner for their efforts. Another campaign initiative (by the ruling CPP) involved handing out 10 000 riel ($2.50 US) and a free krama to rural villagers - just a small token of appreciation, and definitely not a blatant attempt to buy votes.
The election will determine the make-up of the 123 seat National Assembly. The main parties in this year's election are the Cambodia People's Party (73 seats won in last election), the Sam Rainsy Party (24 seats won in last election), the National United Front for an Independent, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC) (26 seats won in last election), the Norodom Ranariddh Party (founded by Prince Norodom Ranarridh after he was ousted from FUNCINPEC in 2006), and the Human Rights Party (founded in 2007). I bet I can guess who wins.
Prime Minister Hun Sen is seeking a second official five year term, but he has held power in some form since 1985 through a series of coalitions between his CPP and other political groups. His ruthless political career is perhaps highlighted by a voilent coup in 1997 to oust Prime Minister Norodom Ranarridh. At a news conference following the coup Hun Sen was proud to proclaim: "I am now the captain alone." (New York Times, July 11, 1997 'Hun Sen Says He's Enjoying Being Cambodia's Sole Ruler). Prior to 1985 it has been alleged that Hun Sen was a top official in the Khmer Rouge - a claim that he denies.
In this year's election Hun Sen's CPP is expected to come out on top again - no change you can believe in here. Watching the stream of political supporters move down the street early on that beautiful Cambodia morning, I was utterly astounded at this different interpretation/manifestation of democracy. I'm not sure what the issues are in this year's election, and could not identify the main ideological differences between the parties. I don't think I'm the only one. In a country where corruption is running rampant and one party fairly easily maintains a clear hold on power, change seems likes a pretty good idea. Unfortunately it also seems pretty unlikely.
The CPP will fight tooth and nail to maintain their hold on power, because it benefits the leaders of the party (financially and otherwise) to do so. The main opposition party and others will continue to work against CPP dominance. Eventually maybe their efforts will pay off and Cambodia's government will evolve, but it seems unlikely that this year's election will be the turning point.
As for the rest of the country, the majority of the population, I would be interested to hear what they think of democracy, how they understand it and what it means for day to day life. Is it just participating in a parade because you have been encouraged to do so? Or for the free lunch? Or are the parades symbolic of genuine political preferences based on party policy and leadership? These are questions I don't have the answer to, but in a country where democracy is relatively new and functioning peacefully (if not effectively), the perspective of the people would definitely be worth hearing.