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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Commune councils set to vote on village chiefs nationwide

Commune councils set to vote on village chiefs nationwide

commune.jpg
commune.jpg

Vong Sokheng

CPP member Hang Phon, 55, chief of Sday commune's Pro Theat village for a quarter of a century, at last faces an election of sorts.

In a blinding burst of sunlight, the shaded footpath emerges from the forest and

into the front yard of local village chief Hang Phon.

It's just a short hike from Highway 21 in Koh Thom district, Kandal province, but

here, underneath his traditional, stilted wooden home, Phon explains to the Post

a system of governance far removed from political processes found two hours away

in Phnom Penh.

At 55, Phon has been the chief of Sday commune's Pro Theat village for a quarter

of a century. He says his main responsibility is helping villagers with irrigation

projects. Aside from that, he calls meetings every month or so at the village pagoda,

and does his best to settle social squabbles and property disputes.

"My job is to bring villagers together and listen to what their problems and

priorities are - I call the meetings at the pagoda and report back to the commune

council," Phon said. "I am the same as the other villagers; if I don't

work hard in the rice fields, I won't have any food to eat."

Phon, a flinty, humorous father of five, is the closest government official for 440

far-flung, rural families, totaling 1,774 people. When well-paid political analysts

use the term "grassroots," this what they mean. He's the lowest rung of

Cambodia's political structure and for his labors he earns $3 each month.

"It's not even enough for gasoline to go and attend our meetings," he said.

Since 1979 all village chiefs have been appointed from above within the ruling Cambodian

People's Party (until 1991 known as the People's Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea).

But, in the next few weeks, Phon, and 13,000 other village chiefs and deputy village

chiefs, will be selected by the country's 1,621 commune councils.

The change in selection process has thrust the village chief's role into the midst

of a political fray that many see as a precursor to the 2007 commune elections and

the 2008 parliamentary election.

For the first time in 27 years opposition party candidates will compete with the

ruling CPP for village chief positions. The process has been hailed by some as a

step forward, but criticized as undemocratic by SRP leader Sam Rainsy and the local

election monitoring NGO Committee for Free and Fair Elections (COMFREL).

"Decentralization is an illusion if village chiefs are not democratically selected

- and the way they are selected now is very undemocratic," Rainsy said by phone

from Paris. "The CPP controls 99 percent of the commune councils, so strictly

speaking the CPP is in a position to elect 99 percent of the village chiefs. This

is totally undemocratic and does not respect the rights of the minority."

Rainsy argues that the new system of selecting a village chief by absolute majority

of a commune council will keep power in the hands of the ruling CPP and ignore the

needs of villagers. Commune council members were most recently elected by general

suffrage in February 2002.

"Only the local leaders know the needs of the people and know the best ways

of responding to the needs of the grassroots citizens. Therefore, decentralization

is necessary to promote development," Rainsy said. "We need to take a close

look at the village chief selection process."

The Ministry of Interior (MoI) issued instructions on March 1 to commune councilors

for the selection of village chiefs, saying they must be chosen by majority vote

by commune councilors.

The opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) has gained two village chief positions out

of the five in Phnom Penh's Boeng Tumpun commune in a pilot selection on April 27-28,

said Sam Rithy Duong Hak, SRP chief of cabinet.

The Boeng Tumpun commune selection was a pilot process held to iron out any problems

ahead of the village chief selections throughout the rest of the country.

Sak Setha, director-general of the MoI's Department of Administration, told the Post

on May 16 that the pilot selection had gone smoothly, and that each commune council

had been given electoral training.

He said the selection of village chiefs in the rest of the country will begin in

June and continue for a month.

"I think that the selection of village chiefs will go well and will be completed

within the next month," Setha said.

No NGO oversight

Koul Panha, COMFREL executive director, said he will not send staff to observe the

elections.

He said the MoI should allow the people in the villages to participate in the election

of their village chiefs. Many villagers have deep affection for their local leaders

and are in a better position to select them, he said.

"We believe the selection of village chiefs without the participation of the

people in the villages will not reflect the will of the people," Panha said.

He said political parties may put pressure on their appointed village chiefs to ensure

results in the commune elections in 2007 and national elections in 2008.

"I see the selection of the village chiefs as just an organization of political

party infrastructure," Panha said. "The influence of political parties

will break unity at the local level because the village chief will serve the interests

of his party."

Rainsy said that having village chiefs and deputy village chiefs from the CPP, Funcinpec

and SRP would encourage checks and balances at the grassroots level and reduce political

violence against the opposition.

He said the living conditions of villagers are directly dependent on the village

chief, who has strong power at local level.

"When the village chief is not happy with someone, that person can face intimidation,

insecurity and even death," Rainsy said. "The village chief can create

discrimination in the village and deny or grant gifts, water and legal documents."

"We need a formula that reflects the national reconciliation among all political

parties. Democracy is not just about respecting the majority - the majority also

needs to respect the minority and take its ideas and demands into consideration,"

Rainsy said.

"It is the first time in history for the SRP to play a role of democracy to

fight [with the ruling party] to get power at the grassroots level," Rainsy

said.

But Panha said the CPP will control more than 95 percent of villages.

A village chief's wait

Phon, a CPP member, said the residents of Pro Theat village nominated a list of ten

candidates on May 5, which was then sent to the commune council for final selection.

He admits that the new appointment process has altered village politics, but for

now he will just wait for the results.

"It will mean a big change. We will need to do more, and do a better job, to

gain support because now there are three parties," Phon said. "We have

to consider the different parties now. There is more competition now to get support

from the villagers."

"The village chief is a very powerful figure for the grassroots citizen,"

Rainsy said. "He is in charge of everyday life - security, food distribution

and issuing legal documents. If you are not on good terms with him, it can mean big

problems."

But Phon downplays his responsibilities, and laughs as he shares some of the disputes

that have come his way. Villagers have sought his counsel over everything from marital

problems to the positioning of fence posts.

"I like being village chief about half the time. It's fifty-fifty. Sometimes,

it's just too much work," he said. "I don't really want to do it any more,

but if I get selected I will continue to do my job."

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