Saturday, July 27, 2013

Going home for election day

People disembarking the Neak Loeng ferry on the Prey Veng side.

A friend, his wife Sophea and baby daughter were visiting me here in Prey Veng and had planned to stay a few more days, but the baby became mildly ill, so they decided to return to Phnom Penh today, the day before the National Elections. Their driver was supposed come from Phnom Penh this morning to pick them up and should have arrived by 11AM or so, but at noon called and said he was delayed by a huge traffic back up on the Neak Loeung ferry crossing.

National Route #1 is the main road from Phnom Penh to Prey Veng province. Where it meets the Mekong River at Neak Loeung the only way across is by ferry boat, which runs non-stop all day. But today isn’t just any day. It is the day before the elections. Today many of the people who live outside their home province travel back to vote where they are registered. Hence the back-up at the Neak Loeung crossing which can be a bottleneck when traffic exceeds the capacity of the ferries.

Their car had arrived at the crossing on the other side of the river at 10AM. Two hours later he was still hundreds of vehicles back in line and was told it could be hours more. Overhearing us talk of the problem the house owner Vuthy suggested that he could drive us to Neak Loeung, only 30-40 minutes away, where they could board the ferry on foot and meet their car on the other side. Good idea.

With the sky threatening imminent rain we quickly packed everybody into the Pajero and left just as a light shower began. On the road to Neak Loeung I noticed that traffic was heavy, but I was concerned less about that than the baby who was desperately tired and acting up because she wanted her cradle from the back of the truck. Bouncing to and fro in the moving vehicle I retrieved the cumbersome cradle and straddled it across the length of the seat. Without prompting the baby crawled in and went to sleep. We were left with it balanced on our laps and trying to keep the baby from being launched from her spring loaded bed by the bobbing of the truck, but at least her fussing had stopped and allowed me sit back and watch the passing scene.

That’s when I began to notice the sheer volume of remorques and tuk-tuks and taxis and truckloads of people, and more truckloads, and more, all heading north from Neak Loeung into the province. These vehicles were chock full, I mean, absolutely brimming with people.

There’s an old joke; ‘You know how many people can fit in a Cambodian taxi? …One more.’

But not this day.

The insides of these vehicles were packed sardine tight and external passengers hung off every available projection like so many Christmas tree ornaments. They dangled from mirrors, balanced on trailer hooks, squatted on front bumpers. Not that such ridership is unusual in Cambodia, but not in this quantity. We passed a large group on foot making their way along the shoulder, and later a bus, probably theirs, upside down on the side of the road. Dozens of packed vehicles passed, and dozens more. And then it turned into an unbroken stream of people-bloated remorques, trucks and taxis. Sophea mumbled a concerned “charan” repeatedly and there were occasional 'ooos' and awed 'hmmms' from all of us. As I watched these passing masses I noticed that many of them, perhaps even most, were young women. This is worth note.

Prey Veng is a very rural province. There is no tourism or large factories. The vast majority of the resident population is in the agricultural sector - the proverbial Cambodian countryside. This is the demographic with which the CPP traditionally does very well come election time.

Of Prey Veng’s 11 seats in the National Assembly, the CPP holds 7. But the opposition also does comparatively well here, holding 3 seats. The Norodom Ranariddh Party (NRP) holds the one non-CPP/non-opposition seat, but the NRP is now dissolved and not participating in the election, so that seat is up for grabs. Maybe more as well.

The opposition has won its Prey Veng seats over the last two elections in part by building on the demise of FUNCINPEC which used to hold significant sway here. But perhaps more importantly, the Prey Veng countryside is the source of day laborers in Phnom Penh and large numbers of garment workers employed in the factories around Takeo, Kandal and Phnom Penh. And the factory worker vote falls very strongly on the side of the opposition parties. Those thousands of young women streaming up the road from Neak Loeung and into the countryside are likely garments workers heading home to vote, bringing their opposition leanings with them, and perhaps influencing their families who are the beneficiaries of largess sent home by their daughters in the factories. Their impact may be felt beyond the taking of that one NRP seat.

I looked down at the ill baby bouncing along in her cradle and then up at the passing flow of humanity, and I was concerned. If something goes wrong, if you need help, if you need some sort of special consideration, this is not the place to be. The roads are clogged, the authorities overwhelmed and ordinary people have there own immediate concerns. I anticipated the worst at Neak Loeung, and I worried.

My worries proved unfounded. It was traffic on the other side of the river that was backed up. On our side of the river there was a constant outpouring of people and vehicles from the ferries, but it was smooth, steady procession as people flowed straight onto the main road toward the eastern districts, or turned north at the Vietnam Monument onto the road to Prey Veng City and the northern districts.

Vuthy parked on a side road and escorted the family onto the ferry, leaving me to guard the truck. An apparently mentally disturbed street person moved into the shadow next to the truck and sat eating garbage. Disturbed, I wandered off to the ferry docks and took the above video.

Before Vuthy returned my friend called from the other side to tell me that they had gotten safely to their car and were relaxing with a cold drink before hitting the road for Phnom Penh. Shortly thereafter Vuthy emerged from the crowd and climbed into the truck. Mission accomplished. We lingered momentarily, watching the street person consume what appeared to be a light bulb, but with sunset quickly approaching we had to get on our way. Vuthy gently guided the truck through the crowds and we joined the slowly diminishing stream of north-bound vehicles heading for Prey Veng City, the deep countryside and Election Day.

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