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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
Standing in 5 communes
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'