Cambodians campaign on last day before elections
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP)
Caravans of political parties wound their way through the capital Friday, the final day of official campaigning before Cambodia's first ever local election. Motorbikes and open-top trucks filled with activists wearing hats adorned with their party logos cruised the streets, delivering pleas through loud speakers.
The vote on Sunday is the first test of popularity for Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People's Party since the 1998 national elections. The latest polls will elect officials who will sit on councils that will govern 1,621 communes, or clusters of villages, across the country. The communes are currently ruled by chiefs appointed by the Interior Ministry. Their replacement by elected officials will be the latest step in war-ravaged Cambodia's efforts to spread democracy at the grass-roots. However, the commune councils will still be answerable to the Interior Ministry. The outcome of the polls will not have an impact on Hun Sen's government. Preliminary results will be announced Monday and final results will be announced between Feb. 19-22, the National Election Committee said.
Mounting the strongest challenges to the CPP is its junior coalition partner, the royalist Funcinpec, which is competing alone in these polls, and the opposition Sam Rainsy Party. Caravans from all three parties converged Friday at a market in southern Phnom Penh within five minutes of each other. Supporters of the CPP told vendors and shoppers to remember that the CPP brought peace, while Funcinpec loyalists reminded voters that their party was founded by the respected King Norodom Sihanouk. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy pledged to eliminate corruption. Some 5.2 million Cambodians over the age of 18 are registered to vote.
The elections process has been marred by violence and intimidation. About 20 opposition candidates and activists have been killed. The latest, a Sam Rainsy Party member, was shot by a policeman on Wednesday, the party said in a statement. The National Election Committee has been criticized for failing to inform the largely illiterate electorate properly about the elections, leaving 1 million people unregistered and hence ineligible to vote. Un Vanthan, a motorcycle taxi driver and father of five, said he registered in his village just outside the capital but many of his neighbors were not registered. "Some did not have the proper identification and could not register and others did not care to because they have family troubles and rice troubles,'' Un Vanthan said, referring to food needs. He expressed disappointment with Cambodia's first democratic elections, the national elections of 1993 that brought Hun Sen to power and the second one in 1998, which consolidated his party's position. - AP