PHNOM PENH – Prime Minister Hun Sen is expected to dominate next Sunday’s election in Cambodia, but opposition parties think they have found the chink in his armour: the youth vote.
More than 53 percent of Cambodian voters are younger than 30, according to the National Election Committee.
Few of them can remember any ruler other than Hun Sen, who became prime minister in 1985 in the wake of the Khmer Rouge’s genocidal rein that left up to two million people dead in the 1970s.
All of that is history to young Cambodians, who have watched neighbours Thailand and Vietnam develop rapidly, while their own country remains among the world’s poorest, hobbled by endemic corruption.
“The most important issue is corruption because it has spread from the lowest to highest levels and the rich get richer and the poor get poorer. I can hardly find a proper job,” said Ros Longdy, 23, who said he works as an underpaid security guard.
The opposition Sam Rainsy Party believes it can harness that discontent against Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
“First, we want to gather youth power around the Sam Rainsy Party so we can help improve our society. Second, we want to teach youth about politics, something that they don’t know much about,” said 28-year-old Sann Seak Kin, who heads the party’s youth wing.
About 180,000 people have joined the Sam Rainsy youth wing since it was formed last year, but analysts say they will face an uphill battle in tapping the youth vote.
“In past elections, the youngest voters have been more supportive of the Cambodian People’s Party than other age groups. Why that is, who knows?” said John Willis, at the International Republican Institute, which polls Cambodian voters.
Younger Cambodians also tend to be less involved in politics. A recent survey by the International Republican Institute found that only 60 percent of people under 30 were interested in voting, compared with 80 percent for those over 30.
“They (youths) don’t really think the upcoming election is very important,” said Mao Puthea Roth, coordinator for the Youth Council of Cambodia, a group that encourages young people to vote.
Many young people only registered to vote after their parents told them to, and few had clear ideas about the issues at stake, said Koul Panha, head of local election monitoring organisation Comfrel.
“We asked them about the election. They didn’t have clear ideas about the election. They didn’t have a clear decision about whether they would vote,” he said.
But there are signs that young people are getting more involved: more than 250,000 youths were added to voter rolls in a registration drive over the past year.
Sam Rainsy’s outreach efforts have also caught the eye of the ruling party, with Hun Sen earlier this year ripping the opposition for “dragging a youth movement to topple Hun Sen from his position.”
Comfrel’s Koul Panha also noted that young Cambodians educated about elections by his organisation often become politically motivated.
“They’re very optimistic when engaging with the opposition. They think their party is going to win,” Koul Panha said.
Willis said the government would do well to heed young voters in the future.
“The high expectations among young voters can be dangerous for future governments if they don’t fulfil future expectations,” he said.