There is promise wafting through the air. Cambodia's quinquennial National election is occurring on today, Sunday. Cambodian election season lasts exactly one month before. Instead of yard signs, endless political commercials and leaflets conveniently secured with rubber bands on the front doors of target districts, there are motorcades of supporters.
There are two parties vying on the ballot—the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP), which will surely win and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), whose leader was just pardoned by King Sihamoni and allowed to return to Cambodia just a week before the election. There is a strong undercurrent of “we want change” buoyed by the opposition leader’s return; the jubilation is manifested by the hundreds of people that gathered in rallies across the country over the past two weeks. Indeed, the National Election Committee reports 3.5 million of the country's 9.5 million registered voters are between the ages of 18 and 30. That’s a lot of energy for politics.
Sam Rainsey returned to Cambodia to lead the CNRP earlier that morning, with thousands of supporters turning out to greet him near the airport. To continue the celebration, hundreds of young people streamed down the Sisowath Quay on motorbikes and tuk tuks, adorned with stickers on their cheeks, passengers carrying flags and many holding up five fingers on one hand and two on the other to represent ballot listing for the CNRP. Their flow was a a palatable affirmation of an alternative to the years of greed and corruption and insider deals and feudal power dynamics that maintain Cambodia’s notoriously corrupt ruling party. Martha would have appreciated the spirit of youth who were standing up for something. Their faces glowed with collective optimism, contagious spirit and energy while they chanted, “P’doh. P’doh. P’doh. (Change. Change. Change)”
The first morning of election season, I experienced my first CPP motorcade. I was getting a ride home after the hospital’s soccer tourney, thankfuly secured in the car's aircon bubble. Police stopped the incoming traffic to let the procession go by. A chicken hung from a motorbike waiting next to us, blinking in the middle of the noonday sun. Everyone obeyed the diligent police as the procession of stickered and black-windowed Lexuses, Range Rovers, and other big trucks with flags and supporters lumbered by. When they passed, the gridlock continued all the way home. On another evening, a CPP bandwagon sped down the street, the rear bed decorated with disco lights, a 5 piece ensemble and a young woman in scanty clothing singing screechy campaign songs. Other smaller trucks drive around with large speakers and a screen in the back, broadcasting video footage and speeches that sound eerily like the historic recordings of Germany in 1940. The CPP message is using fear; any change will lead to a recurrence of another murderous regime.
The CPP will carry on for another five year term. “Astroturf”, said my neighbor,cynical and hardened with 20 yeas of development experience in Cambodia. “It’s not a real election.” There are reports of bloated voter rolls in contentious districts, media blackouts on opposition success stories, and concerns about the ink used to prevent voter fraud. (Apparently it washes off without much trouble.) A friend reports that there are just 41 official election observers in the entire country. My colleagues mention their difficulties with securing election IDs and unsettled concerns that there will be violence, similar to the coup that occurred after election in 1997. There was an alcohol ban for the day before and the day of the election, and a national holiday declared for Monday.
I was nearly moved to tears on Friday last week, on the evening walk on the riverside. I was struggling with the news of my friend Martha’s suicide. She was found on the shores of Turnagain Arm last week, a place that strikes a powerful chord in my visual memories. Martha was a passionate career activist that linked youth, women and environmental causes into a powerful support network that has empowered hundreds of people across the Alaska. I was mystified and grieving for her decision and needed to walk it through my brain. But, I couldn't get across the street. I knew, as I saw it, that I was bearing witness to an unprecendented moment in Cambodian history.
What a contrast to the nightly CPP rallies that were set up at one of Phnom Penh’s premier intersections over the past month. The full sound stage and the typical blaring music volume of any Cambodian gathering in the neighboring park, surrounded by logo-ed trucks and buses lining the periphery. Hundreds of young people milled about in the standard issue white shirt and white logo hat. I didn’t detect a lot of enthusiasm until I saw the crowd surrounding a couple of tables, piled with stacks of the rectangular Styrofoam containers that are common for takeaway food. The Phnom Penh Post reported on accounts of $5 payments (and obviously a free dinner) to ensure support, particularly to people in Phnom Penh’s outlying neighborhoods.
In the midst of these discussions with my Cambodian colleagues, I’m struck by how many people look to America as an example. I consider the electoral college, hanging chads in Florida, accusations about Diebold voting machines, Super-PACs, new voter fraud prevention laws occurring in some states and the Voting Rights Act just amended by the Supreme Court. We are not perfect, but we can be reasonably assured that the result of our vote will be private. In Cambodia, voting against the party line could cost you your livelihood and any prospects for the future.
Many local professionals and the expat development experts are now looking ahead to 2018. As one friend mused recently, the current unemployment and food shortages will surely continue and likely escalate if the ruling elite maintains their policies in the near future. The millions of young people who are now voting for the first time will have their frontal lobes fully developed into adulthood. Pro-democracy donors will have ample time to work with local activists to build a platform and capacity for mobilization. Cambodia already has a very high use of social media and this campaign season has alreadyy proved the efficacy of the tool for reaching that population. CNRP has 170,653 "likes" compared to Prime Minister Hun Sen's page at 72,000. This election’s momentum has chipped a hole into the wall that the CPP have built to surround their empire. The true result may not manifest now, but in the years to come.
The young man selling Vietnamese coffee (.35 cents each) at the hospital gate was convivial on Friday afternoon. His friends, the motodups and tuk tuk guys, hovered around his stand and me as he prepared my coffee. They’d just returned from a CNRP rally across the street and were pumped up. He asked me to spell out CNRP in ballpoint pen on his arm. The men asked about the word “rescue”, rolling over the pronunciation a few times and trying to get it right. The young man asked with a curiousity I felt was sparked by all this momentum, “What does rescue mean?”