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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Candidate debates should enliven election

Candidate debates should enliven election


Prime Minister Hun Sen, CPP. Sam Rainsy, SRP. Prince Ranariddh, Funcinpec.

Cambodia's first commune elections, set for February, will boast another first: open

debate between candidates and the public on local governance and policy issues that

affect the day-to-day lives at the grassroots level.

In a country whose recent history has been marred by violence and political intimidation

and where arguments have been solved through the barrel of a gun, the dramatic development

promises to liven up the election process.

"If successful, the exercise could prove to be a big leap for Cambodia's democratization

process, creating a truly democratic tradition of free speech and expression,"

said Dr Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy (KID).

His organization is sponsoring the event in association with the US-based National

Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI).

All six political parties, including arch rivals CPP-Funcinpec and SRP, have nominated

their local candidates, signifying a willingness to provide voters with an opportunity

to make an informed choice for commune council candidates on polling day, February


The debates are scheduled to take place in seven key districts and will be held during

the election campaign, which begins January 18. The NDI said that districts were

chosen to encourage participation of as many registered political parties as possible.

The smaller parties have registered in only a handful of the total 1,621 communes;

the three largest are represented in almost all.

Candidate debates are a common feature of elections in the world's major democracies

but are unknown thus far in Cambodia. The commune elections will follow the system

used in the national elections, where voters cast their ballot for the party of their

choice, not the candidates.

Each party then nominates its candidates for the positions on the commune councils.

This, however, means that voters have little opportunity to know who will represent


"Voters going to the polls should know who they are voting for and how the candidates

intend to fix the commune problems," said NDI director Eric Kessler. "Candidate

debates will help shift the focus of the election from national political party platforms

and charismatic party leaders to candidates' own plans to directly improve the lives

of the citizens of their commune."

The candidate debates will follow half-day community group discussion sessions in

respective communes between candidates and local residents from different walks of

life. These will help citizens chart the priority issues in their respective communes

that they would like their newly-elected commune councilors to address.

Before that, candidates will attend a brief training session where they will learn

debating techniques, sharpen their public speaking skills and understand the format

and rules of the debate.

The man who will moderate the debates is Heng Mony Chenda, director of Buddhism For

Development. He is a former Buddhist monk and a graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School

of Government in the US. He is widely respected and regarded as non-partisan, two

key considerations.

"The choice of a moderator was critical since a too prominent figure could kill

the debate. We needed someone who was highly qualified and enjoyed confidence and

equal respect of all the political parties but still was not a very famous name,"

said Dr Lao.

Several nagging concerns, however, remain. Considering the long standing bitterness

between the SRP and the CPP-Funcinpec coalition and the past history of personal

attacks, critics were afraid the debate that brought rival candidates face to face

on a common platform could easily deteriorate into a slanging match.

There was also some doubt as to whether Cambodia's rural electorate was amenable

to the idea of questioning local political leaders when, in the past, any such effort

was met with intimidation and threats of retribution against those who dared challenge

their local political lords. Mony Chenda said his experiences showed that was not

a problem.

"During the course of my interactions with grassroots people in Battambang and

Banteay Meanchey provinces, I was amazed to learn how even young women who have never

been to school could talk so strongly about issues that affect them. It is a wrong

impression that the rural, illiterate people are not smart enough to express their

opinions clearly," said Mony Chenda.

To gauge the public mood, KID recently organized a forum in four Phnom Penh communes.

The results, said Dr Lao, were surprising, particularly those from women.

"Though shy at first, they became quite vocal after being assured by the local

authorities that they were free to voice their opinions," he recalled.

Typical among the issues raised by the electorate were the need to build a dike around

a low-lying village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, construction of a canal to drain

flood water from the village, establishing a vocational training center since school

education alone was not leading to jobs, and better quality teachers and teaching


"Though better infrastructure, security, and law and order remain basic issues

all over the Kingdom, many more such purely local issues will be brought out by the

public, setting a development agenda for the newly elected councilors. In the end,

the public will vote for those who can solve their problems, and not those who can

attack their rivals better," Mony Chenda said.

The success of the 2002 debates, NDI said, would prove an important step towards

participatory democracy, setting a precedent for the 2003 national elections. USAid

will fund the exercise, which will run January 19-31 and cover one commune in Kampong

Speu, Siem Reap, Kampong Cham, Kampot and Svey Rieng provinces and two communes in

Phnom Penh.



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