"If you can vote freely, which political
party would you vote for?"
SKOUN, Kampong Cham - Five plain-clothed Cambodians emerged July 8 from an unmarked
white Toyota and fanned out into the central market of this mid-sized provincial
Their mission: to determine to the best of their statistical ability which party
will win the July 26 election.
"If you can vote freely, which political party would you vote for?" was
the question raised repeatedly with vendors, moto-taxi drivers, farmers and pharmacists.
It is a straight-forward question, but one that often elicits a complicated, perhaps
"Oh, I don't know, I haven't decided yet," is the most common reply. Others
boldly state their political preference, while some are clearly suspicious of the
interviewer and refuse to respond even though they are assured their names will not
No matter what the answer, it is carefully recorded on a survey form and kept for
tallying later that evening. More than 2,000 responses are gathered in Phnom Penh
and the provinces by 15 interviewers over a three-day period.
Such is the job for the handful of pollsters at the French Institute for Statistics,
Opinion Polls and Research - better known by its French-language acronym, IFRASSORC.
IFRASSORC Director Huy Sophal
IFRASSORC Director Huy Sophan, a former Finance Ministry official during the People's
Republic of Kampuchea and State of Cambodia regimes, said the idea for an NGO offering
independent statistical information was born out of the Khmer community in France
"After the events of July 5-6, 1997, the situation in Cambodia has gotten worse
and worse," Huy Sophan explained. "I always wished that I could do something
useful for my country without being connected to a political party.
"Now I'm able to inform everybody about the real feelings of the Khmer population
on political questions that are very sensitive, and I do it in an independent way."
Sophan's independence has been the subject of some debate. News organizations have
linked his NGO with the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), citing a similarity between his press
releases to those of the SRP and the close proximity of IFRASSORC's office and Sam
Sophan freely admitted that he is an acquaintance of Rainsy, who he said asked him
in 1993 to rejoin the Finance Ministry, but he insisted that he has never joined
a political party and has remained staunchly neutral in his polling work.
"I have relations with all the main parties, especially with the CPP. I worked
with them for 10 years from 1979 to 1989," Sophan said. "I always say what
is black and what is white. I never take sides."
Funding for the polls, according to Sophan, comes from a group of about 100 French-Khmers
who "want to teach the Cambodians how to conduct their living so the people
will really feel they are the masters of their own country".
IFRASSORC began publishing the results of its polls in February, at first sticking
to general questions about politics and the economy such as: "Do you believe
that there will be free, fair and credible elections this year?" and "Compared
to 1993, has there been any change in your living conditions?"
But in the four most recent polls IFRASSORC's questions have become more pointed
as the organization attempts to determine which political party has captured the
hearts, minds and hopes of the electorate.
Unfortunately for IFRASSORC, the job has not been easy.
The CPP and the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) have remained in close competition for most
popular party in three of the polls. Funcinpec has consistently placed a distant
third while the other nine parties in the survey have received marginal support.
In the latest poll, released July 14, the SRP garnered twice as much support as the
CPP and Funcinpec in a sample of 3,398 people (see graphic).
But when the sample is adjusted to account for the distribution of the population
in Phnom Penh and the provinces, the CPP closes the gap between itself and the SRP
to just a few percentage points, with Funcinpec again placing a distant third.
However, a majority of respondents in all the polls - more than 60% - consistently
tell pollsters that they have "no opinion", a statistic that waters down
any conclusion one might make from IFRASSORC's surveys.
As pollsters working in the field pose their questions to prospective respondents,
the reason for so many "no opinion" responses in a nation where more than
90% of the electorate has registered to vote is soon made clear.
Just like almost anything out of the ordinary in provincial Cambodia, the presence
of the pollsters in the Skoun central market quickly attracted attention and a crowd
soon formed around the interviewers.
Interviewers are trained to lead the respondent to a more private location, but the
unashamed crowds in Skoun simply trailed after the pair. As people craned their necks
to see what was happening many respondents became spooked and quickly respond: "I
"If there is only one person, he is more likely to choose freely," a pollster
confirmed. "If there are many people, they feel they cannot" and choose
Huy Sophan shook his head when the problems with the gathering crowds were related
to him: "In fact they have an opinion but they don't want to say," he said.
"This shows you the atmosphere of intimidation."
An air of intimidation often seemed evident during the surveying. One respondent
shyly asked where the SRP was on the survey sheet. When asked if he wanted to choose
the SRP, he blanched, shook his head and walked away.
Another respondent whispered to a pollster: "Soldiers came and took my voter
registration card from me and many others. They haven't given them back."
The pollster, when asked if he often received such complaints, responded plainly:
"Yes, of course."
In the three most recent surveys, IFRASSORC has attempted to account for the large
number of "no opinion" respondents by asking them an additional question:
"Why don't you have an opinion? (a) I don't care about politics [5.8% selected
this option in a poll released June 16]; (b) I have not yet decided what party to
vote for [62.4%]; or (c) I have decided, but I don't want to reveal my opinion [31.8%]."
Would you like Hun Sen, Ranariddh or Rainsy with your premiership?
IFRASSORC extrapolated from these responses that people who chose (a) or (b) would
vote equally for the three main parties, but that the opposition parties - Funcinpec
and the SRP - would evenly split the respondents who chose (c) "because if the
concerned people had supported the ruling party they would have no fear in letting
their opinion [be] known".
Final figures based on these calculations put the SRP first in a hypothetical election
with 40.7% of the vote, Funcinpec second with 31.7% and the CPP third with 27.6%.
Sophan said he realizes that his polls are not perfect and freely pointed out some
of their other shortcomings:
Interviewers are afraid to travel to remote areas of the country and therefore stick
to provincial markets where a broad section of provincial society presumably congregates;
male respondents outnumber female respondents although women are a significantly
larger percentage of the population; farming families, who make up about 80% of the
voting population, often make up less than 30% of the survey; and respondents from
Phnom Penh make up about 30% of the respondents while the capital represents only
about 15% of the population.
"That is not representative at all," Sophan exclaimed. "That is why
we make a breakdown by occupation in our reports - so people can see what each sector
Despite the problems of balancing a representative sample with a random one that
is safe to obtain, Sophan said his polls are a useful tool for those who want to
know what the Khmer electorate is thinking.
"When we put it all together the results might not be right, but a decision
maker should be much more interested in the details," he said.
Barring the extrapolations of the June 16 poll results, IFRA-SSORC has mostly stayed
away from connecting its results with what will really happen on election day, publishing
the following disclaimer in a recent survey report:
"Given the very high proportion of respondents who express no opinion, the above
figures must be approached with caution. The final [election] result will depend
on how those who expressed no opinion actually vote on election day, which will depend
on how free the voters feel to express their opinion at the polling station. The
final ranking may be much different from that indicated by the above figures."
However, Sophan told the Post that in its final survey before July 26, IFRASSORC
will offer some conclusions based on all the information it has gathered in the past
Asked for a preview of his final report, Sophan smiled and said that, for the moment,
he will keep those conclusions to himself.
*Son Sann Party, Buddhist Liberal Party, Molinaka Party, Khmer Citizen
Party, Reastr Niyum Party, Sangkum Thmei Party, National Union Party, Light of Freedom
Party, Cambodia National Sustaining Party.
P. Penh: 10%
Sam Rainsy Party
Nine other parties in survey*