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Friday, June 27, 2008

Cambodia Kicks Off General Election Campaign

Cambodia Kicks Off General Election Campaign

Source: AFP

PHNOM PENH (AFP) — Cambodian political parties on Thursday kicked off month-long campaigning for a general election that Prime Minister Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) is expected to dominate.

Thousands of supporters of various parties took to the capital's streets for raucous marches, while motorscooters adorned with political banners and the national flag roared up and down the roads.

CPP president Chea Sim told about 10,000 supporters at their Phnom Penh headquarters that the ruling party was committed to economic growth.

The CPP supporters, dressed in T-shirts adorned with the party logo, cheered when Chea Sim took a swipe at rival parties.

"Those ill-willed people always elevate themselves while blaming others. They have done nothing in the interest of the people except tell lies, deceive, insult and agitate for conflict in the society," Chea Sim said.

"For this, they will not have a chance of getting the people's support," he added.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, wearing a garland of flowers, appealed to populist sentiments, vowing to fight inflation and other economic woes as he addressed 1,000 supporters in a Phnom Penh park.

"Land that has been grabbed will be given back to the people. Vote for Rainsy to drop the price of gasoline and raise the salaries of civil servants," he said to cheering supporters who later paraded with him through the city.

Despite the celebratory mood, analysts have said Sam Rainsy and the party that bears his name have little chance of defeating Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Hun Sen has run Cambodia for 23 years, making him Southeast Asia's longest-serving leader besides the sultan of Brunei.

His current coalition partner, the royalist Funcinpec party, has been hobbled by infighting and the ouster of its leader, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who has formed his own party.

Ranariddh, in self-imposed exile in Kuala Lumpur and convicted of fraud for the illegal sale of his former party's headquarters, promised some 3,000 supporters by phone that he would address "border, immigration, poverty and (illegal) land selling issues."

"Stop voting for Prime Minister Hun Sen and his people, and vote for Norodom Ranariddh Party," he said.

With the royalist ranks divided, Sam Rainsy is the main opposition force, but is expected to win few votes outside the capital.

Hun Sen rival Kem Sokha has formed a new Human Rights Party that will be cutting its teeth in the polls.

There are 11 parties competing for 123 parliamentary seats in the July 27 poll.

Some 8.1 million people are registered to vote at 15,000 polling stations, under the eyes of more than 13,000 domestic and international observers.

Koul Panha, director of election monitoring group Comfrel, told AFP that there has been some political intimidation in the run up to the election but the atmosphere seemed to be "better than previous elections."

However the CPP retains a ubiquitous presence across the country and a tight grip on every level of government.

During his rule, Hun Sen has ruthlessly undermined his political rivals and staged a coup in 1997, after elections forced him to share power.

But he has also steered the impoverished country out of the ashes of civil war and overseen a growing economy through increasing trade and tourism.

Garment exports and tourism have brought double-digit economic growth, but Cambodia remains one of the world's poorest countries. Some 35 percent of its 14 million people live on less than 50 US cents a day.

Human rights activists have also questioned whether Cambodia's economic growth is coming at too high a price, and accuse the government of evicting poor villagers from their land to make way for a construction boom.

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