There are 10 parties fielding candidates in this Sunday’s commune elections, but if the tone of their platforms and policies is anything to go by, that doesn’t necessarily leave voters with a wealth of choice.
It is just the third time that commune elections have been held, in which voters are asked to choose based on parties and their national platforms, not the performance of individual candidates.
And though individual commune council candidates might identify specific localised issues to woo their electorates, the campaign platforms their parties have armed them with are almost indistinguishable.
For Hem Nareth, a 29-year-old second-time voter and activist from the organisation Empowering Youths in Cambodia, the messages and alternatives on offer in this election are disenfranchising.
“No leader inspires us enough to support them, or offers a model [that is] good enough to see that they would do a good job for us to support them,” she said.
“That’s why we would rather keep quiet and vote for [an] opposition party, just to promote democracy to protect us more.”
The Cambodian People’s Party is considered a certainty to win a majority of seats, having picked up 70 per cent of the 11,353 contested in the 2007 ballot and increased its percentage of the vote at every type of election since 1993.
The Sam Rainsy Party almost doubled its commune electorate win from 12 per cent in 2002 to 23 per cent in 2007. The 2007 election was a watershed for the SRP, which swept aside the Funcinpec and the Norodom Ranraddih Party – both of which attained less than 4 per cent of the vote – to become Cambodia’s main opposition party.
This year, another key opposition party will race in the commune vote. The Human Rights Party, officially formed shortly after the 2007 commune elections, will compete in 1,070 of the 1,633 communes.
While the number of parties has increased, this has not necessarily equated to an increase in choice.
The Post contacted key officials from each of the 10 parties recently and asked them about their key political platforms and policies.
Across the board, parties tended to respond in almost exactly the same way, committing to democracy, rule of law and development, with poverty a key issue to tackle.
Half said their party stood for anti-corruption and cracking down on illegal immigrants along with border issues with the Vietnamese.
Only one party said public health was part of their political platform and only one other said addressing land issues was a key policy.
Laura Thornton, resident director of the US Democratic Party-affiliated National Democratic Institute, said that during a program to train commune council candidates in electoral debate, getting parties to distinguish their policies had been the most significant challenge.
“We worked really hard on that. We did months of this campaign training, and the biggest focus was on message development, and a big component of that was contrast,” she said. “Basically it answers the question ‘why should I vote for you?’”
One problem for parties trying to answer this question is that it is very hard to gauge what issues the electorate are broadly concerned about in a campaign where only two polls have been conducted, neither of which asked voters about specific current issues.
But beneath the vague overarching manifestos of the individual parties, at the local level, candidates are beginning to find their own voice with specific, relevant messages that are impacting voters.
NDI’s training program included organising a series of debates, and yesterday the NGO wrote in a press release that exit polls showed 88 per cent of people who attended these had changed their mind about who to vote for.
“The fact that simply sitting through one debate would change the opinion of almost 90 per cent of participants is remarkable,” Thornton said.
“It demonstrates citizens’ hunger for information from the parties and candidates and their appreciation of constructive, respectful, and fair exchange of opinions and ideas.”
Koul Panha, executive director of the election monitoring group Comfrel, said the debates – a novel concept in Cambodian politics – should be applied at higher levels.
“If the political parties want people to understand their platform at the national level, they should have debates, and we don’t have those debates,” he said.
One big debate on the national level is whether a recent wave of violence associated with land disputes and activists has bred resentment in the country’s marginal seats, mostly located in the relatively well-informed capital city, Phnom Penh.
The issue has become a key focus of the SRP’s campaign, the question remains can they get that message out amongst the din of overlapping voices.