Cambodian Rivals Woo voters
PHNOM PENH, Cambodia _ Cambodia’s capital barely took notice of a show of strength Thursday by strongman Hun Sen, who paid supporters $2.50 apiece to participate in a festive campaign convoy.
His main opponent, however, was mobbed by thrilled vendors and shopkeepers when he paid a surprise campaign visit to the city’s main market. People knocked over goods and broke glass display cases trying to catch a glimpse of Prince Norodom Ranariddh.
Ranariddh, Cambodia’s co-prime minister until Hun Sen deposed him last year, took the enthusiasm that greeted his arrival at the central market as a sign of popular support. But he said he feared two things: election fraud or that Hun Sen will not relinquish power if he loses.
``I am still worried about what will happen after election day,″ Ranariddh said. ``Only a government led by me, myself, will get international support to rebuild this country.″
The elections Sunday are the first since the U.N.-sponsored vote of 1993 that was to usher in a new era of democracy after decades of civil war and the Khmer Rouge genocide of the late 1970s.
Ranariddh and his party finished first. But Hun Sen, who came to power in 1985 during the Vietnamese military occupation that followed the Khmer Rouge, forced his way into a co-premiership by menacing civil war.
Last summer’s violent coup cost Hun Sen much of his international legitimacy and aid. Hoping to win it back, he has permitted Ranariddh to return from post-coup exile to contest the vote.
This time Cambodians are organizing the election, though hundreds of foreign observers will be on hand in a U.N.-coordinated mission. But already the United States has said it perceives the vote as fundamentally flawed.
Opponents say Hun Sen has ensured he will win through the systematic and violent intimidation of his foes and the packing of electoral machinery with his supporters.
Election results are not expected to be announced for a week. Whatever the outcome, Hun Sen was clearly the loser in the popularity contest on Thursday.
People showed little interest as hundreds of trucks bearing cheering supporters of his Cambodian People’s Party rolled through the streets. Party officials said they had enlisted 28,000 people in the show of support, paying each the equivalent of $2.50. They hit the roads in 743 trucks.
Several motorcades drove through the capital, rolling past the Royal Palace with bullhorns blaring slogans. Supporters waved flags and shouted, ``Chai-yo!″ or ``Bravo!″
A similar but more somber demonstration was planned by Sam Rainsy, the other main opposition candidate, for Friday, the last day of campaigning. Rainsy is to lead a truck convoy and rally supporters outside the National Assembly, where 16 people were killed in a grenade attack at a protest he was leading March 30, 1997. Hun Sen has been widely blamed.