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Cablegate: Cambodia Election: Sam Rainsy Party Stands to Gain

VZCZCXRO5804
PP RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHHM RUEHNH
DE RUEHPF #0601/01 2070410
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 250410Z JUL 08
FM AMEMBASSY PHNOM PENH
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
INFO RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE PRIORITY

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 04 PHNOM PENH 000601

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR EAP/MLS

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV KDEM PHUM CB
SUBJECT: CAMBODIA ELECTION: SAM RAINSY PARTY STANDS TO GAIN
BUT BY HOW MUCH?

SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED. HANDLE ACCORDINGLY.

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: One day before the official cooling-off
period ahead of the July 27 election, the Sam Rainsy Party
(SRP) is assessing its chances as good in many of Cambodia's
24 provinces. In more sober moments - when not rhetorically
claiming imminent victory - party regulars will say they can
obtain anywhere between 27 to 35 seats in the 123-seat
National Assembly, a gain over the 24 seats they won in 2003.
Based solely on Commune Council elections results in 2007,
Sam Rainsy could net a gain of seven seats. But there was
less on the line in those 1621 local Commune Council
elections. The Sam Rainsy party has a new grass-roots
orientation and a "softly, softly, quietly, quietly" strategy
designed not to draw attention to its gains. At the same
time that SRP covets many of the 20 or so seats FUNCINPEC
(FCP) stands to lose, the ruling Cambodian Peoples Party
(CPP) has been working overtime to win over FCP supporters.
CPP Senior Minister Mem Sam An has been aggressive in trying
for a full sweep of Svay Rieng's five seats, for example, and
is likely to snatch away a FCP seat that was within SRP's
grasp just six months ago. The Human Rights Party often
positions itself as an alternative to SRP and may drain past
supporters. SRP strong-suit policies on issues that might
have swayed voters just a week ago -- economic uncertainty,
joblessness, high inflation -- are perceived as less
important, as the election takes place in the shadow of the
Preah Vihear border dispute and the electorate focuses on
national security. Post offers a snapshot analysis of SRP's
position and chances in the election, province by province.
END SUMMARY.

2. (SBU) Sam Rainsy Party perceptions and strategies going
into Sunday's National Election constitute one indicator of
the party's political acumen and represent a measure of its
credibility as the main opposition party. With seats being
contested province by province under a party's name, the
National Assembly election is also a test of the party
democratization efforts begun by the SRP in 2006 with support
from the International Republican Institute (IRI). If SRP
has indeed secured loyal support for provincial leadership
from members at the local level, then this new effort should
translate into more votes for the party. Some of the more
realistic SRP candidates know their position is weak in a
number of provinces where CPP has been and remains strong -
Sihanoukville, Kep, and Ratanakiri to name three. They are
out on the hustings holding high the SRP party banner
nonetheless, hopeful to score gains in long-term supporters
for future elections. Others are in the thick of a battle
for the hundreds of thousands of voters who once supported
the Royalists. Prey Veng and Kandal may offer up at least
two former FCP seats and Battambang and Kampong Speu are two
more battleground provinces where an FCP seat is almost sure
to fall.

No-Contest, One-Seat Provinces; and Then There's Pailin
--------------------------------------------- ----------

3. (SBU) Among one-seat provinces, Sihanoukville, Kep and
Ratanakiri have voted for CPP over SRP by a margin of at
least five to one in past elections. Other sure-fire CPP
seats are Odar Meanchey, Stung Treng, Preah Vihear, Koh Kong,
and Mondolkiri. A unique case is exotic Pailin Municipality,
the former Khmer Rouge stronghold that went to Sam Rainsy
Party in the second mandate in 1998, but was won by CPP in
2002 Commune Council elections and has eluded re-capture ever
since. In the 2007 Commune Council elections, SRP won half
as many votes as CPP in Pailin and appears to be gaining
strength. Given that SRP candidate Long Bunny has not
previously served in parliament, it appears the SRP is not
willing to put itself on the line with a high-profile
candidate for the seat. While SRP is more visible in Pailin
(which is prosperous through small-hold farming in corn sold
to Thailand), isolated allegations persist of undue influence
by village chiefs in Pailin. One village chief was reported
to warn a family earlier this year that if they didn't join
CPP, they would be "banned" from the village, an idle threat
that many local officials found laughable, but a needless
strong-arm tactic against poor and uneducated farmers that
the CPP center does not favor.

More Depth Among SRP Candidates in Kampong Cham, Phnom Penh
--------------------------------------------- --------------

4. (SBU) By the looks of its candidate lists for Kampong
Cham and Phnom Penh, SRP is hoping to gain at least one more
seat among these traditional strongholds for a net gain from
11 to 12 seats. (COMMENT: It is notable that SRP has placed
well-connected Cambodian-Americans who bring in substantial

PHNOM PENH 00000601 002 OF 004


financial support just below the traditional threshold of
winning seats. END COMMENT.) Phnom Penh's workers and
educated middle class are two of SRP's strongest voter bases.
With the CPP taking credit for a recent $6 monthly bonus
among all garment workers, and with the rise of a new
generation of uneducated but wealthy businesspersons in
Cambodia's recent economic boom, CPP may be increasing its
base and holding back any further SRP gains.

5. (SBU) The youth vote is a major uncertainty in the two
seat-rich provinces of Kampong Cham and Phnom Penh.
Nationwide, 260,000 new young voters have joined the rolls
for the first time, and more than half of all of Cambodia's
voters are aged 18-30. On the one hand, many youth are
better educated and more attuned to concepts of personal
freedom and democratic values (SRP strong points). On the
other hand, CPP has produced an unprecedented number of youth
events this past year. One defection may be the key to
understanding the youth vote split between CPP and SRP. The
CPP wooed away SRP's National Youth Movement leader
(reportedly with cash, a big car and a bevy of motorbikes
among other inducements), who is active and vocal, skills he
has been deploying with some effect against SRP over the
months since he defected. In radio talk shows, he emphasizes
the nepotism and cronyism among the inner circles at the SRP.
True or not, his stories resonate and he appears to attract
many more callers than the typical call-in show.

The Middle Provinces: Prey Veng and Kandal
------------------------------------------

6. (SBU) Though they each have 11 seats in the National
Assembly, these two eastern neighbors to Phnom Penh have
never been strong suits for SRP, which won three seats in
Kandal and two seats in Prey Veng in 2003. FUNCINPEC carried
three seats in each province in 2003 -- the Royalist base had
been strong. However, with Ranariddh's departure from FCP
and the creation of his own party, the Norodom Ranariddh
Party (NRP) did surprisingly well in these provinces in the
CC elections. Given that CPP is fielding a lesser minister
in the sixth position on its candidate list for Kandal (which
includes Hun Sen at the top), it would appear that CPP
expects to easily gain one seat. SRP strength in the Commune
Council elections, taken at face value, would indicate that
SRP could pick up two more seats here, one in each province,
but SRP can take nothing for granted. Nonetheless, Tioulong
Saumura told Pol/Ec Chief July 20 that people will be
surprised by Sam Rainsy's showing in Prey Veng.

Battambang: Premier Battleground Province
-----------------------------------------

7. (SBU) If the large number of SRP campaign complaints to
the Provincial Election Committee says nothing else, it
indicates how seriously SRP takes Battambang province with
one FCP seat up for grabs. Battambang is SRP Secretary
General Eng Chhay Eang's home province, and the base from
which he mounted a successful grass-roots campaign to secure
supporters to back his run for the top internal SRP position.
Knowing that CPP did not do well enough in the CC elections
to be assured of adding to its current five seats in
Battambang, Eng Chhay Eang is using every means at his
disposal to increase SRP's voice in parliament and gain the
one FCP seat at stake. SRP boycotted a youth debate held in
the only local hall large enough to accommodate the audience
because it was government controlled. SRP held campaign
parades a full week before the official campaign period.
Local CPP officials acknowledge SRP's aggressive campaign
tactics but state they have chosen not to confront SRP.
Judging by the massive rallies and parades held in
Battambang, CPP is devoting vast resources to increase its
parliamentary standing.

New and Difficult Frontiers: Svay Rieng and Pursat
--------------------------------------------- ------

8. (SBU) With no seat in either province previously, but
having won about one fifth of the vote in each of these
provinces in the 2007 CC elections, SRP earlier was feeling
confident about picking up a seat in each during this year's
election. On the opening day of the election campaign
season, the 10,000-person party parade that CPP Senior
Minister Mem Sam An orchestrated with hundreds of vehicles
going down route 1 to the Vietnamese border (including
helicopter eye-in-the-sky television coverage) was just one
more indication that CPP is committed to its Svay Rieng
strategy motto: "five-out-of-five." SRP MP Ngor Sovann, who
had previously served in Kandal but was assigned to lead the
SRP campaign in Svay Rieng, defected to CPP earlier in the

PHNOM PENH 00000601 003 OF 004


year. It might have been possible for SRP to pick up an FCP
seat in Pursat, since FUNCINPEC is not putting up one of its
leading lights on that province's candidate list. However,
the number one CPP candidate is Minister of Industry, Mines
and Energy Suy Sem and an incumbent MP and a Pursat native is
CPP's fourth-listed candidate in an unspoken four-out-of-four
strategy.

SRP's One-Seater Wonders
------------------------

9. (SBU) In six provinces where SRP won a single seat in
2003, three showed real growth in voter support during the
2007 CC elections, indicating that SRP might be able to take
a second seat in each: Takeo, Siem Reap, and Kampong Speu.
Both Takeo (Sok An's home province) and Siem Reap (Tea Banh's
base) have received massive infusions of CPP support. SRP
has not put up strong candidates beyond incumbents in the
number one slots. SRP looks to maintain it current six seats
in these areas.

Kampot and Kampong Thom: Complicated
------------------------------------

10. (SBU) In Kampot, Mu Sochua early on engineered the
removal of Kampot native Kieng Vang from the provincial
candidate list -- his consolation was that he could have a
safe SRP seat in Phnom Penh -- but he was so furious that he
quit the party, returned to FUNCINPEC, and is their number
one candidate in Kampot. Were it not for these internal
party maneuverings and other headline-grabbing stunts, Mu
Sochua might have helped secure for SRP two of Kampot's six
seats. As it stands, SRP may be facing an uphill battle to
hold on to one seat. In Kampong Thom, where SRP has a number
of Commune Council Chief positions, SRP has put up only one
strong MP incumbent. The number two candidate is a grandson
of an historic figure from the early anti-Sihanouk days who
was an ally of Sam Rainsy's anti-Sihanouk father, Sam Sary.

11. (SBU) Banteay Meanchey is the source of another SRP
safe seat based largely on the thousands of casino workers
who also reside there. FUNCINPEC and NRP have effectively
split the Royalist vote, but it appears that SRP support is
not strong enough to win more than one of the province's six
seats.

"Softly, Softly, Quietly, Quietly" a Success...
--------------------------------------------- --

12. (SBU) The long-term strategy SRP instituted last year
is to work at the grass-roots on constituent issues but
without fanfare or calling attention to themselves. In this
work -- which should be considered separate from the
high-visibility national campaign run by Rainsy and his inner
circle -- SRP has no interest in confronting CPP, or using
aggressive tactics, or even initiating a competition,
according to a senior SRP cabinet member, who labeled it the
"softly, softly, quietly, quietly" strategy that has already
won over many supporters. SRP will work on one problem at a
time to help people improve their lives and remember that SRP
was the source of assistance, he noted. In Kampong Speu, EU
Long Term Election Observer Ruth Meyer noted to Pol/Ec chief
on July 17 how effective Sam Rainsy had been in coming to
different rural villages and attracting substantial crowds at
each - about 1,000 on three separate occasions. This
experienced observer, a veteran Cambodia election-watcher,
remarked on the success of this grass-roots effort.

... But Issues Campaign Stalled
-------------------------------

13. (SBU) The focused issues campaign that Sam Rainsy had
initiated last year so that every candidate could repeat it
ad nauseum has now died a quiet death and lays like another
ruin at Preah Vihear. It was a simple and effective
platform: promising more jobs; lower prices for gas,
fertilizer and electricity; and free health care. During
Phnom Penh's shock inflationary period earlier this year, the
message was resonating widely. Now that every Cambodian of
voting age is preoccupied with the defense of the motherland
against Thai invaders at Preah Vihear, it is almost as if
these issues had never existed. SRP efforts to insert key
parliamentarians into the foreign and defense policy debate
(key SRP parliamentarians such as Son Chhay rushed to Preah
Vihear) have not gained much traction. The party in power
has a clear incumbent advantage in this time of perceived
national emergency. In the meantime, HRP serves as SRP's
mirror image and attracts some of the same voter base,
despite Khem Sokha's protestations that he is seeking former

PHNOM PENH 00000601 004 OF 004


FUNCINPEC supporters.

Comment
-------

14. (SBU) SRP is expecting to do better than in 2003 and
has certainly enjoyed a more open political space with far
less violence, threats or intimidation than in past election
campaigns. While it has shown more maturity at the grass
roots than in such headline-grabbing antics as Sam Rainsy
embroiling himself in a Khmer Rouge Tribunal controversy, and
while SRP in this election is likely to gain seats at the
polls, whether SRP can realize the substantial gains it had
set its sights on last year is questionable.
MUSSOMELI

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