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Commune election debates put focus on future

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Candidates in Cambodia’s commune elections participate in an National Democratic Institute-organised debate in Kandal province on Sunday. Photograph: supplied

Voters were proving they are less likely to buy into lofty political promises and past achievements and were more interested in action and the betterment of their future, the organisers of nationwide commune election debates said yesterday.

Ahead of 10 consecutive days of national radio broadcasts of the debates, scheduled to begin today, organisers at the National Democratic Institute said they had been blown away by the level of participation in the debates so far.

“It kind of amazes me, the patience and interest of the people here,” NDI country director Laura Thornton said.

More than 2,500 voters have turned up to the debates, in which candidates respond to voter questions about policy and leadership.

“The national radio coverage is essential,” Thornton said. “We cannot get to every commune for debates, but this way people up in Battambang can be listening to what has happened at the Kandal debate and say: ‘Yeah, that affects me too.’”

Jeff Fox, a Canadian politician who has been in Cambodia to assist with training candidates for the debates, said political parties were beginning to appreciate the strategic value of debates.

“This is a unique opportunity for them to talk on a national platform about ideas relating to the future of communes, and most parties appreciate the value of that,” Fox said, adding that ideas, hopes and opportunities were the basis of election debates.

“And I think this may be the most redeeming quality of the debates – to shift to looking to the future, not the past.”

Fox, a politician for 30 years, now provides guidance and training for democracies that are still developing a culture of campaign debates.

“A very, very large percentage of the population will be voting for the first time in their lives. That is where the win lies, quite frankly, because they haven’t imbedded party affiliation yet, so for most of [the parties], that is the target audience,” he said.

The NDI has been training about 100 candidates since January in techniques for electoral debate.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bridget Di Certo at bridget.dicerto@phnompenhpost.com

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