Kampong Cham, Cambodia’s most populous province and a recent stronghold of the opposition party, has been split in two by a Royal decree signed by King Norodom Sihamoni on December 31 on the recommendation of Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Representing a mammoth 18 seats in parliament, the politically prized province has been split along the Mekong, creating a new province called Tbong Khmum made up of one municipality and six districts, including its namesake.
Election results show that Cambodians living on the western side of the Mekong – what remains Kampong Cham – voted overwhelmingly for the opposition compared to the eastern side – the new province.
But election watchdogs have cautioned that until electoral seats are distributed between the two provinces, something that could happen as late as 2018, it would be impossible to say that the decision was motivated by politics rather than decentralisation.
“Until we know how they are going to divvy up the seat allocation, we cannot judge the political motives behind splitting the province,” said Laura Thornton, director at the National Democratic Institute, a US-government funded election monitor. “We have to wait and see what the seat allocation is and if there is anything suspicious and not based on the formula which is clearly stated in the law. It is certainly a very competitive province, so I think people will be watching it closely,” she said.
Koul Panha, director at election watchdog Comfrel, said he was concerned the decision was “not purely for administrative purposes” and could be used to benefit the ruling party, though he also emphasised that it was too early to draw conclusions.
“Because the province is a constituency, they must have consultation with the political parties. If they create new [electoral] divides … they must talk with the political parties, because it is really linked with the election,” he said.
Sak Sitha, secretary of state at the Interior Ministry, said yesterday that the splitting of provinces was not a new phenomenon and had nothing to do with politics.
“If we did not create new provinces, those areas would not develop like right now,” he said.
Sitha added that Kampong Cham was being split due to its large population – approximately 1.7 million – in order to improve administrative efficiency.
Despite soaring urban populations in the Kingdom, the allocation of parliamentary seats has remained unchanged since before 1998, making the value of a vote vastly different across constituencies.
Election monitors said yesterday that while seats in other provinces are yet to be changed to rectify the problem, the splitting of Kampong Cham should allow seats to be redistributed to more fairly reflect population, even if that means adding more seats to opposition-dominated areas.
National Election Committee secretary-general Tep Nytha said yesterday that a government committee would redistribute seats between Kampong Cham and Tbong Khmum ahead of the 2018 national election based on the population formula in the election law.
But opposition whip Son Chhay, one of two opposition representatives on the committee, said the ruling party has long been reluctant to use the formula to redistribute seats in order to avoid benefitting the opposition.
Despite questioning the political timing, Chhay said he approved of the decision.
“The population is too large and needs to be divided so the administration can be able to handle the province more appropriately,” he said.