The atmosphere surrounding Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) headquarters on June 28 was
worse than grim. Results from village chief elections had been flowing into the opposition
camp all day - where they were met with darkening shades of disbelief, frustration
and outright anger.
With the election nearly 90 percent complete, the ruling Cambodian People's Party
had won a staggering 99.5 percent of the vitally important 13,796 village chief positions.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has condemned the results - which were boycotted by
NGO election watchdogs - as the product of bribery, patronage and fraud.
Rainsy says the election has been manipulated in a brazen attempt by the CPP political
machine to reinforce its power structure in readiness for the 2007 commune council
elections and the 2008 National Assembly election.
"I am disgusted," Rainsy told the Post on June 29. "This is a perversion
of democracy. It is totally disconnected from the will of people. In reaction to
these results the SRP is calling for passive resistance and civil disobedience."
The SRP and royalist party Funcinpec are projected to gain roughly 30 seats apiece,
or 0.002 percent each. The village chief is nominated by village residents, but is
ultimately chosen by an elected commune council composed of members of the three
main political parties. Roughly 70 percent of Cambodia's 1,621 councils have a CPP
Village chiefs are paid $3 per month and have responsibilities that include conflict
resolution, agricultural aid distribution and voter registration.
"I believe the village chief election is extremely important," said Koul
Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia
"The village chief has a big impact on the voters because they see them every
day and they decide who to provide resources for. They play an important role in
development at the grass roots level. The infrastructure of the village chief and
commune council will have a strong influence on the process of national elections
scheduled for 2008."
Rainsy alleges that the CPP has been buying the votes of Funcinpec and SRP commune
council members for prices ranging from $500 to $10,000 dollars.
"It is part of their strategy to control the village chief," he said. "The
CPP bought the positions. Virtually all Funcinpec members have sold out and some
SRP council members have sold out as well," he said. "It bodes ill for
the coming elections because they will use the village chiefs to influence election
results and voter registration. Decisive things are being done now, two years ahead
of the election. The stage is being set."
High-ranking CPP officials deny accusations of manipulating the election.
"I don't know anything about vote buying because there have been no complaints
filed with the Ministry of Interior," said CPP member Sak Setha, director-general
of the administration of the Ministry of Interior.
Rainsy says the SRP's dismal showing doesn't stand up to logic.
"Look at Phnom Penh - Phnom Penh is the stronghold of the SRP," he said.
"In the last election the SRP got more votes than the CPP and Funcinpec combined.
But now the CPP has managed to control all the village chiefs in Phnom Penh except
The capital is composed of 690 villages. In the last national election the SRP won
roughly 1.1 million votes, second to the CPP's 2.4 million and slightly ahead of
Funcinpec. Despite being the coalition partner of the CPP, most political analysts
consider the SRP's popularity to have overtaken Funcinpec's.
Funcinpec officials declined to comment on the results of the village chief elections.
"Funcinpec is not losing its popularity because it is still the one political
party strong enough to challenge the CPP," said Ok Socheath, adviser to Funcinpec's
President, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, and former ambassador to the Philippines. "Funcinpec
is still a factor in 2007 and 2008, because it was the royalist party that brought
democracy to Cambodia in 1993. If the CPP wins the election in 2008 it means there
is no longer democracy in Cambodia."
But according to Rainsy, democracy is already a "façade" in Cambodia.
He admits to the daunting task of competing with a ruling party that controls among
other things the media, the economy and a longstanding and pervasive system of patronage.
"It is a real battle for the minds of the people," Rainsy said. "CPP
has resorted to manipulating them, and their main tool to gain votes is through donations.
Bridges and roads are presented as gifts by the government. Then they say 'Look,
we've done everything. What has the SRP done?' What are you supposed to think if
your livelihood depends on these so-called donations? The message is 'You depend
on us.' And it works, it's psychologically effective and has the power of money.
"The truth is, they are stealing millions from the country and giving back pennies."
But COMFREL's Panha, who cites a demographic shift that adds roughly 250,000 new
voters each year, believes that an effective political party with a commitment to
young voters and clear platform has a chance to overcome the CPP juggernaut.
"The new young voters have a different vision from their elders because they
need to think about the future such as jobs and the need for more freedom,"
he said. "They will consider good governance before they go to vote. It is difficult
to say what political party could replace the CPP, but if I look into the political
trend of the opposition SRP it is possible, if it can present a clear program and
keep the rifts in its party under control."