Scuttlebutt is not normally a major part of the stock-in-trade for journalists covering elections. But in countries like Cambodia with an absence of opinion polls, access to government ministers and the usual spin doctors attempting to mold public opinion, gossip can be as good as it gets.
And the rumor mill around Phnom Penh is thriving. The impressions are daunting. Increasingly, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) looks paranoid, even delusional, despite widespread expectations that it will easily win the July 28 poll, albeit with a reduced majority.
This was typified over the weekend. On Friday the government announced what effectively amounted to a ban on foreign radio broadcasts inside the country in order “to ensure fair and unbiased media coverage” of the election campaign.
The ban was dropped just two days later following a chorus of international criticism, led by Washington, which made CPP strategists blush.
This came after a rare political blunder by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who claimed opposition figure Kem Sokha had paid US$500 for sex with a 15-year-old girl. Hun Sen said he had intervened and knowingly broke the law by preventing Kem Sokha’s arrest.
The admission upset even his most ardent fans and has taken on an added nuance when compared with his statements made last year when he told U.S. President Barack Obama that he could not possibly facilitate the release of dissident broadcaster Mam Sonanda as this was a matter for the courts alone.
What exactly the motivation was behind the sexual complaints leveled against Kem Sokha is unclear. Hun Sen likes to ramble and can talk for up to four hours among villagers while on the hustings and doling out rice, cigarettes and other perks.
Such generosity was once enough to guarantee a healthy return at the ballot box from a nation of villagers who were genuinely grateful that Hun Sen had finally put an end to 30 years of war.
But that was way back in 1998. Times have changed and so have the demographics. A generation of young people, disaffected by war and demanding Japanese motorbikes, iphones, flat screen televisions and enough money to indulge in the capital’s vibrant nightclub scene are emerging as a political force.
Cambodia’s youth have also discarded government-controlled media for the Internet and social media websites. This shift has angered the CPP strategists who are struggling to control and drive home their message, which is fear mongering at its best, warning of a return to war unless the CPP is re-elected.
Other complaints include phone lines being cut between friendly opposition groups. Monks have been warned to toe the CPP line. And internally, the CPP has warned that human rights and land grabbing, the two biggest issues in this country, are to be kept off the electoral agenda.
There was also the case of Chhouk Bandith, a district governor who shot three women protesting conditions in a factory. He was sentenced in absentia to just 18 months in prison but authorities say they don’t know where he is.
Sources close to the CPP complain that the party is more obsessed with the thousands of anti-CPP websites mushrooming on the Internet. At one-point there was talk of blocking Facebook.
Government minders have been caught rigging a press conference with a Western salesman masquerading as a journalist. Opposition leader in exile Sam Rainsy was denied entry to Thailand, a gateway to Cambodia, until after the election.
Meetings held by the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) were allegedly disrupted by CPP loyalists who are putting on a loud and unprecedented show of force on the capital’s streets.
Four law suits have been launched against Kem Sokha; the latest over opposition claims that the CPP had attempted to disrupt the opposition’s election bid.
The CPP always plays hardball at elections and their antics are turning Cambodia’s rumor mill into a bonfire of speculation and gossip. This time, however, the CPP is lacking its usual pre-election confidence and the exact reasons why are difficult to gauge given the government’s intense dislike for sharing its thoughts with the wider public.
With this level of secrecy, there is a real possibility that CPP officials know something the rest of us don’t. But in a country where scuttlebutt is part and parcel of the political process, secrets have a habit of going public.
Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter at @lukeanthonyhunt.