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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Spot the difference: crowded middle ground

Spot the difference: crowded middle ground

Only a sliver of rhetorical difference separates the eight political parties

contesting the February 3 commune elections. The parties' platforms all feature

edicts against corruption, in favor of the rule of law and the increased

participation of women.

Extra schools and health clinics are also

popular promises. Despite the fact that this is a local election, the promises

are accompanied by nationalistic sentiments on either border control, national

unity or illegal immigrants.

On the face of the published policies you

could be forgiven for believing that the coming commune elections will be a

contest between eight branches of the same liberal-democratic party.


they are all playing the democracy game," says Chea Vannath of the Center for

Social Development (CSD). "When the SRP says 'We will fight corruption', then

they all say 'We will fight corruption' too."

CSD has spent $100,000

distributing a 12 page summary of the parties' platforms ahead of the poll.

Seven hundred thousand 'voter education guides' were disseminated to the

country's 1,621 communes through students, monks, village chiefs, the military

and anyone else CSD could think of.

"The whole purpose of distributing

this document is to help people to be their own masters. The essence is to

empower the voter," says Vannath of the guide which she describes as "a unique

non-partisan document".

The guide provides information on the campaign,

the functions of the commune councils, and the decentralization policy. It also

gives equal space to the eight parties that have entered candidates in the

commune elections.

The three main parties - CPP, Funcinpec and the Sam

Rainsy Party (SRP) - have presented broad statements on a range of policies that

are remarkably free from detail. While the SRP claims it will "deal with the

immigration issue" it offers no specifics on how it will do so.


promises "Education for All"; however, like the other parties, it gives no

indication of how much this will cost or how it will be funded.

"They all

go along with globalization and worldwide trends," explains Vannath. The party

platforms, she adds, tend to reflect themes pursued by Cambodia's donors more

than the desires of the country's electorate.

"Decentralization, good

governance, transparency and accountability are donor driven issues," she


On the ground, however, the policies that gain voters' attention

tend to be the bread and butter issues of access to basic services. The parties

have become more sophisticated in their appeal to voters since the national

election in 1998 when CSD last distributed a voter education guide.


their promises are more specific: that is they now mention clean water and roads

and so on. They know very well what the real needs of the people of the

countryside are," says Vannath.

Vannath agrees that voters should not

simply take the guides at face value.

"Just by reading their policy

platforms you cannot tell the difference between the parties," she says. "But in

their implementation the essence of their origins is still


Deep down, says Vannath, the differences between the parties

are still visible to voters. The CPP is still "socialist-communist", Funcinpec

"royalist-hierarchical" and the SRP "liberal-democratic". But, she warns, the

parties' stated positions may have little effect on policies once in power. "In

a political coalition anything can happen."

The Khmer Institute for

Democracy's Lao Mong Hay agrees.

"We know two parties rather well but we

are yet to test the SRP," he says. "When you are out of power, you are liberal.

When you are in power, it's a different question." He argues that a reversion to

old ideologies is unlikely in Cambodia where power is pursued for its own


"The CPP has regained its self-confidence with the disadvantage

that its officials have tended to become arrogant and show their true colors,"

says Mong Hay. "They would not revert to communism, but one could fear that our

country could go straight to fascism; one man, one rule.

"The trend of

the past few months is bad. The arbitrary decision on karaoke, the ban on

participation of government officials in public forums, then the intimidation

and insecurity of non-CPP party members. That is my fear," he explains. "Commune

elections could form a counterweight but that depends on whether the commune

councils work well."

Vannath recommends that voters use the commune

elections to pursue issues rather than party power.

"Since we don't have

political maturity yet, political parties don't have any history [for voters] to

base a decision on," she says. "In the US if you want to vote for a good welfare

system, then the Democrats have that history and reputation. But here only the

CPP has a reputation. Who can you compare them to? That is why I always advise

people to be 'issue oriented'."

Mong Hay says that differences on a range

of political issues are more apparent in the flesh than on paper.


we put [the commune candidates] on the spot they don't necessarily come up with

the same answers," he says, referring to the recent series of candidate


He says that distinct strategies emerged during the debates: SRP

candidates emphasized corruption while the CPP emphasized its record and

promised to continue poverty reduction. Funcinpec candidates placed their bets

each way by both claiming credit for government success and emphasizing that

they would fight corruption with commune power.

At the end of the day,

though, the ability to distribute largesse may be more decisive than any of

parties' published promises.

"In Mrs Hun Sen's commune there are very

good roads, schools, and pagodas, but in the commune on the opposite side of the

river they have nothing," says Vannath.

What the parties promise

Cambodian People's Party

in 1,621 communes

To better the life in the communes based on

increased development in road infrastructure, small industry, human resource

development. Serve people closely and honestly. Unify people under the motto:

Nation, Religion, King. Increase women's education about their rights and role

in society. Build public and private schools, expand health services and

encourage private health services, implement clean water programs. Promote rice

planting and crop diversity. Guarantee land titles. Rigorously enforce

environmental law, boost eco-tourism. Improve ethics and the capacity of

officials implementing the law.

Standing in 1,603


Defend sovereignty and territorial integrity. Reform

administration so that it is neutral, free from corruption and transparent.

Against the drug trade and military dictatorship. Respect human rights. Seek to

protect women from hard labor and sex trafficking. Build more schools and

introduce professional job training. Retrain health staff; build more local

health centers; help AIDS victims.

Sam Rainsy Party

in 1,501 communes

Eliminate all violence in society, boost human

rights, achieve liberal democracy, eliminate corruption, help the poor,

guarantee neutral administration, reform land distribution, defend borders and

deal with the immigration issue. Stop destroying forests. Correct illegal public

contracts. Professional training at colleges; literacy programs in pagodas.

Allow private services under the control of the Ministry of Health. Reform local

land management systems, boost investment in processed agricultural products.

Ban log exports. Improve public sanitation. Enforce respect for the law and

eliminate debauchery.

Khmer Democratic Party
Standing in 61


Boost the rule of law. Implement multi-party democracy.

Guarantee permanent peace. Respect human rights. Implement the market economy

and encourage investors. Defend heritage, culture and social morality. Strongly

implement the immigration policy. Increase opportunities for women. Reform

school curriculum, reintroduce morality education programs. Reform health policy

in line with a market economy plan. Strongly punish criminal


Khmer Improvement Party
Standing in 6


Work together with the most powerful party to protect

democracy. Rebuild the people and provide justice to the victims who suffered

crimes, persecution, robbery and kidnapping.

Vongkot Khermarak

Mohanokor Party
Standing in 5 communes

Gather together

Khmer nationalists who love peace and democracy. Undertake Sihanoukist policies

for national unification by promoting the village/commune as the main economic

base. Curb all activity of mixing and nationalizing foreigners. Eradicate

illiteracy; teach people to make herbal medicine; seek markets for crops.

Khmer Angkor Party
Standing in 3


Encourage women to participate in social leadership because

women are more progressive and honest than men and will eliminate corruption.

Help poor children go to school. Establish a health center in each


Cambodian Women's Party
Standing in 1


Women to take part in 50 percent of councils and government

institutions. The 30 years of conflict were caused by men while the burden fell

on women. Curb oppression and extortion from students. Reduce the salaries of

parliamentarians. Train people in communes about health care. Reduce interest

rates charged by money-lenders. Encourage reforestation. Stop bad culture from

abroad; overcome sex trafficking and prostitution. Totally eliminate social


- Source: CSD 'Voter Guide'



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