For more than two decades the Cambodian People's Party has had carte blanche grassroots
political control and support through its network of 1606 commune chiefs.
CPP political appointees to a man, the commune chiefs have been an invaluable tool
of political patronage that have allowed the CPP a level of unparalleled political
control of the country.
The long delay in getting the commune elections organized - originally envisaged
to have been held shortly after the 1993 UNTAC-supervised national elections - is
attributed by political observers to an unwillingness by the CPP to ease its long-held
grip on the reigns of grassroots power.
An August 2000 report by the International Crisis Group (ICG) Asia described the
successive postponements of the commune elections over the past eight years as a
ploy by the CPP to maintain its hold on the grassroots.
"Clearly the intransigent party in this issue is the CPP, which has wanted to
maintain the backbone of its network of support throughout the country, particularly
in the run-up to the problematic 1998 election," the ICG report states.
The commune elections also threaten the personal power and privileges of long time
CPP appointed commune chiefs, who are suspected of being unwilling to surrender personal
fiefdoms in the name of democratic reform.
"The Commune Chiefs who have held their positions for decades will face their
first real challenge and are likely to use all possible means, including intimidation
and violence, to retain their jobs," the NGO statement to the May 2000 International
Consultative Group of donors stated.
According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), NGO fears of pre-commune election violence
may well have already been realized.
In its Report on Human Rights During the Year 2000 in Cambodia, HRW documents under
the "Political Violence" section "numerous acts of violence against
local commune leaders, mostly directed at members of the opposition Sam Rainsy Party
HRW lists the murders of four SRP and Funcinpec commune officials or candidates for
the 2002 commune election as well as numerous other incidents in which SRP candidates
"...were threatened or attacked" during 2000.
"While rights workers concluded that most of these incidents were motivated
at least in part by local political rivalries or the victim's role in publicizing
local abuses of power, government officials insisted that the violence reflected
nothing more than personal disputes," the HRW report states. "The effect,
however, was clear: these attacks conveyed the message that involvement in politics
could be life threatening."