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A dearth of democracy

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A polling-booth attendant looks for voters’ names at a polling station in Prey Veng province during nation-wide commune elections earlier this year. Photograph: Derek Stout/Phnom Penh Post

During his first campaign for the US presidency, Barack Obama used the slogan: “Time For Change!”, which attracted voters at that time.

For his second campaign, Obama adopted softer language to communicate with his supporters: “I listen to you, I learn from you, you gave me an opportunity to do this job.”

At the same time, Mitt Romney conceded his loss.

But the American culture of winner and loser is based on shaking hands for the nation and the world, so Obama welcomed Romney to work with him.

Although Democrat supporters rallied and waved the American flag with enthusiasm, they did not display their party flag. This indicated that the nation, not the party, was the important thing and that no one was threatened.

A month before the election, I attended a conference at Northern Illinois University and visited nine other US states.

Wherever I went, relatives, friends and colleagues spoke openly about how they would vote for Obama or Romney.

I noted that government officials, teachers, students and entry-level employees were more likely to vote for Obama because of his policies to pressure the rich to help the poor.

But employers, those in management positions, and owners of small businesses said they would vote for Romney because Obama’s health-care policy affected their income, as they would have to pay for their staff members’ health insurance.

Obama was also criticised for promising to create jobs, yet many Americans were still unemployed.

He was criticised for the state wasting a lot of money on social welfare for “lazy people” who had many children in order to gain extra welfare money, and others who cheated the system.

Many Americans I spoke to made it clear they disliked lazy people. That’s why they hoped Romney, an economist, would create many jobs.

In fact, both Obama and Romney win and lose with their policies. And, ultimately, both want to develop their nation and the rest of the world.

More than 120 million Americans voted freely without force or coercion by the political parties. They could see their names on voter lists and could express their own will.

Obama’s triumph in the US is an illustration of democracy. But what about democracy in Cambodia? What about the “It’s time for change!” slogan of the Sam Rainsy Party’s leader?

Having failed at the national election in 2008, Sam Rainsy faces 12 years in jail and his voting rights have been revoked by the National Election Committee.

Rainsy’s “It’s time for change!” was different to Obama’s “Time for change!”

Prime ministerial candidates in Cambodia never sit down at a table to debate and, since the first national election almost two decades ago, election candidates have always been the same faces, from the prime minister down to commune-council candidates.

Do Cambodians actually know what democracy is?

This comes from the culture and the leader’s long-running belief that: “No one other than me can do the job.”

Is Cambodia’s leader sacrificing much of his party for power? Opposition parties criticise government decisions, but don’t always make an effort to demonstrate their achievements to their supporters.

Once in a while they have internal disputes, but generally do what they want to do rather than strengthening their long-term policies and political strategy.

People are asking what kind of democracy this is.

Why has the Prime Minister held his position for nearly two decades? Even in communist China, people at the top hold power for only 10 years before being replaced by a new leader.

This problem stems from the National Constitution Law, which was issued in 1993 but doesn’t specify the term of the prime minister’s position because it was an issue ignored at the time.

Funcinpec actually won the first election in 1993, but the Cambodian People’s Party insisted on remaining in power – so it did, despite the “democratic elections”. In Cambodia, there’s no culture of resignation.

National Election Committee officials are mostly former civil servants or relatives of commune-council, village and group chiefs. These people are more likely to be partial to the ruling party.

At the 2008 election, the names of thousands of opposition-party supporters did not appear on the voter lists. Some were cheated by fraudulent 1018 forms, others were threatened.

For this reason, people have always felt fearful about the nation before, during and after election results. Whichever party wins, they are cheerful, flying the party flag and wearing the party-logo T-shirt and cap.

This means they are considering the party rather than the nation.

Cambodians must create a culture of opening their minds for our nation, using the US presidential election as a model.

The Royal Government should open a door for Sam Rainsy to join the debate about national development in next year’s national election campaign.

It’s hoped the “It’s time to change!” dream will come true at the next Cambodian election in the same way it did for Obama supporters. In the meantime, the NEC must become a free and fair election organisation.

Tong Soprach is a social-affairs columnist for the Phnom Penh Post's Khmer edition.

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