Phnom Penh - As Cambodians prepare to head to the ballot box for the country’s fifth national election since a 1991 peace agreement, there is no denying that something new is in the air this time round.
Though there is little doubt that Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has held an iron grip on the position for 28 years following the fall of the Khmer Rouge, and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will come out victorious in Sunday’s poll, more and more of the country’s youth have been taking to the streets with a rallying cry for change.
Observers say that much of the younger generation has grown frustrated with the statis. Many struggle to find jobs and there is an increasing awareness of, and frustration with, corruption within the old guard, as well as its influence over everything from television stations to the courts to the National Election Committee (NEC).
Over the last two decades, the ruling party has become more entrenched. In 1993 - the year the country held their first “democratic” elections following peace accord brokered by the King and the UN - the party won just over 42 percent of the vote.
The ruling party now holds nearly 75 percent of seats in parliament.
Hun Sen, 61, who has repeatedly insisted his rule is long from over, announced this year that he would continue to lead the country until 2023.
'I want change'
However, many of the country’s youth, who are far removed from the devastating rule of the Khmer Rouge in the 1970s, are not onboard for a fourth decade under the same ruler.
“I want to change our leader,” Chom Haksim, a 26-year-old sales clerk said at a Phnom Penh political rally last week.
Friends standing nearby, clutching posters featuring the opposition logo, began chanting when they heard what has become the recent the battle cry of the opposition.
|Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy (center right) has been drawing increased support from the youth [AFP]
“Change!” they shouted.
Such public displays of anti-government sentiment were hardly evident during the last National Election in 2008, nor in elections before them.
Though the Khmer Rouge was toppled, for the most part, in 1979, fighting between the government and guerilla forces continued well into the late 1990s. Despite the high-level democracy that had been installed by international players following the peace agreement, politics remained a bloody domain.
In 1997, Hun Sen deposed his co-prime minister, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, in what many consider to be a coup, forcing him to flee the country and kicking off a year in which his Funcinpec loyalists were slayed by the dozens.
For the older generation, who lived through two civil wars punctuated by the horrors of the Khmer Rouge, it is unsurprising that stability is their primary concern. Younger voters have no such need.
“Many young people don’t feel fear … young people are trying to do something very different from the old generation. It’s the start of a new dynamic,” observed Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia.
Tapping into that shift, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party has made “change” its rallying call. Nearly every morning and evening, groups of young voters set out in raucous convoys chanting b’do - “change” in Khmer.
The part represents something of a change itself. After years of starts and stops, and despite long-standing animisities between their leaders, the country's two main opposition parties managed a successful merger in 2012. Since then, the opposition has stood as a unified block and appears to be drawing unprecedented levels of support.
On July 19, an estimated 250,000 supporters poured into the streets of Phnom Penh. They were there to greet Sam Rainsy – the opposition head who had been living in self-imposed exile in Paris for nearly four years to escape convictions widely believed to be politically-motivated.
Just two weeks before the election, a Royal Pardon overturned his sentence and a week later, Rainsy was home.
What greeted him may have given pause to Hun Sen.
The turnout marked likely the biggest-ever political event; a fact made all the more staggering due to media blackouts. The television stations that are Cambodians’ main news source uttered not a word of the rally. Khmer newspapers were similarly silent and only a smattering of independent radio stations made mention of the return.
Word spread, instead, via social media and informal networks. And so something the government termed a non-event, instead became the largest political show of the election.
As a truck carrying the opposition leaders from the airport crawled through the throngs, Rainsy vowed to “rescue” the nation.
“We are now walking together,” he yelled over the din. “I came this time to rescue the nation with all of you.”
The ruling party has brushed aside any concerns that such shows of support for the opposition will unseat Hun Sen.
Asked whether the turnout unsettled, CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith told Al Jazeera that if anything, such numbers represented a diminution.
There’s an environment of intimidation and obstruction of the campaign activity of the non-ruling party
“If you remember the outcome of the last election, the opposition got more than one million supporters,” said Kanharith, who is also the Minister of Information and is running as a lawmaker candidate himself.
But there are actions by the government in the run-up to the election that suggest that the ruling party may be nervious.
In June, for instance, all 28 opposition lawmakers were fired from the National Assembly after a CPP-run committee deemed their appointments “illegal”.
In May, the government leaked tapes in which the opposition’s deputy president can be heard claiming that a notorious Khmer Rouge detention centre was “staged;” has released salacious interviews with a woman who purports to be the same official’s mistress; and has helped stoke a series of protests against him.
“There’s an environment of intimidation and obstruction of the campaign activity of the non-ruling party,” said election watchdog Panha, whose organisation has already termed this the least fair of elections in a decade.
At a more insidious level, election watchdogs have already uncovered proof of vast irregularitiesahead of voting.
An audit of the voter registry carried out by the National Democratic Institute suggests more than 9 percent of voters have been wrongly removed from the list. In some provinces, meanwhile, registration lists appear vastly bloated with rates upwards of 125 percent – raising concerns over ghost voters and widespread fraud.
Though Rainsy’s return has energised a vibrant voter base, it is not clear that will translate into large gains at the poll.
For one, Rainsy himself remains ineligible to run as a lawmaker – and thus a prime minister candidate – after being struck from the registry due to his criminal convictions. Though the pardon overturned those convictions, multiple government bodies have they would be breaking the law if they let him run.
For another, despite the rallying cry of “change,” many voters are terrified of such a prospect.
In the months before the election, Hun Sen preyed on such fears, warning in widely-broadcast speeches that the nation would break out into civil war should the ruling party not succeed.
Outside of the cities, those messages hit home.
“I only ever vote for the CPP,” said Theul Thov, a 75-year-old farmer who lives in the remote Northeast province of Ratanakkiri.
In that, he is far from alone.
A public opinion poll carried out by the International Republican Institute earlier this year found 79 percent of respondents felt the country was moving in the “right direction,” with more than half saying they were better off today than five years ago.