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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Vote-buying 'everywhere' in Battambang

Vote-buying 'everywhere' in Battambang

Sar Kheng, campaign in Battambang.

Reconstruction of the Phnom Penh-Battambang highway is nearly finished. The road

is now mostly paved, and the bridges are under construction, which makes for a more

comfortable ride from the capital to the country's number two city.

Five years on from the last general election it is not only the road that is smoother-the

atmosphere is less volatile too, says the chairman of the Provincial Election Commission

(PEC), Ham Mony.

He says there have been no complaints yet about violence, and feels this shows that

the country has reached a turning point where parties cooperate and abide by the

law. The only violations have been minor infringements of the code of ethics of the

National Election Committee (NEC), such as failing to ask permission before hanging

party banners. In short, he says: "I haven't noticed anything special in Battambang."

That's quite a change from June 1998, when Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) workers gathered

for a parade there received six parcels containing explosives that were wrapped and

presented like cakes.

But even though election-related violence is down, the province's number one Funcinpec

candidate, Nhiek Bun Chhay, hasn't forgiven the past. The senator still stands by

his statement, made six years ago after running for his life from Hun Sen's coup,

that the Prime Minister is "very cruel and worse than Pol Pot".

The former general in the Funcinpec armed forces is confident of success against

another high profile candidate: Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng, who is leading the

Cambodian People's Party (CPP) ticket in the province.

However Bun Chhay grumbles that Sar Kheng's campaign methods violate the election

regulations. As he sits in Funcinpec's provincial office, the former general says

he has complained "everywhere" that the deputy prime minister tries to

buy votes.

"His only tactic is to give out money and rice everywhere, every day,"

Bun Chhay says. "[The CPP's] political platforms are not so clear-not on border

issues, not on immigration and not on corruption. He cannot talk about those three

issues. He has only money and rice to give out to people."

Vote-buying could well be the issue that lingers long after the polls close. Yin

Mengly, coordinator for human rights organization ADHOC, says his investigations

of election-related complaints reveal donations "everywhere" in Battambang.

The Law on Election of Members of the National Assembly states that a party can be

fined up to 25 million riel or have candidates or its candidacy canceled by the NEC

if it "offers incentives, in kind or in cash, in order to buy votes".

And while the CPP is singled out for giving the most rice and money, Funcinpec bestows

gifts on people who participate in its rallies, as does the opposition SRP, albeit

on a smaller scale.

"It is much more serious than in previous elections," says Mengly.

Despite the NEC's code of conduct stating that parties should avoid any sort of contribution

"to an institution, organization or individual during the election campaign",

as the Post pointed out last issue, many think the guidelines are ambiguous.

NEC spokesman Leng Sochea said in early July that the election body would decide

on a definition of vote-buying before polling day. But on July 17, he admitted that

would not happen.

"It's too late to collect a good definition now because election day is coming

soon," says Sochea. "We're barring people from giving money and materials

to voters ... but there are more questions: If a party gives money and materials

at its office, is that vote-buying or not?"

The NEC, he says, has been swamped by numerous different definitions of the word.

One recent case ruled that it was within the law to give donations within a party's

compound.

Somsri Hananunpasuk, a coordinator for Asian election monitoring NGO ANFREL, says

when it comes to vote-buying, the law is defined well enough. The problem is that

the subject is not treated seriously.

She is frustrated by the activity, which is illegal in other countries, and says

the NEC needs to use a heavier hand when dealing with such irregularities.

"In Cambodia they don't think it's a serious irregularity. I think it's a cultural

thing," she says. "[The donations are] in order to convince people to vote

for their party. The purpose is very clear."

But the reasons for gift-giving are not always clear to everyone. One resident of

Battambang says she has not heard of anyone trying to buy votes outright, but has

seen the three main parties handing out food and cash as they did in 1998.

Nhiek Bun Chhay, campaign in Battambang.

Naturally, all three parties deny any wrongdoing. Sar Kheng, for example, told he

Post that he consulted lawyers and the NEC on the issue, and says the conclusion

is that his party is acting within the regulations. He was annoyed when he heard

Bun Chhay on Voice of America radio accusing the CPP of buying votes.

"The CPP has never done what Nhiek Bun Chhay said. Meetings and rallies only

include CPP members," says Sar Kheng at his Battambang home. "It's normal

that when I request my members to do some service I have to provide some gas for

their motorcycles and some food for their stomachs. And the meetings are in the CPP

compound offices.

"I don't think this is vote-buying as Nhiek Bun Chhay has accused," he

continues. "The same thing happened when Prince Ranariddh came here on June

30. He gave bread, drinks and rice to people who went to see him. That included members

and non-members."

Bun Chhay's refrain is the same. He emphatically denies that Funcinpec buys votes,

but concedes rice and water is given to people who attend the rallies. He says there

weren't even enough T-shirts for Ranariddh's rally, which drew over 10,000 people.

"We do not have money to hire people to go on demonstrations," says Bun

Chhay, although he admits, when pressed, that the royalists did give cash to offset

fuel costs.

For his part, the number one candidate for the SRP, secretary-general Eng Chhay Eang,

agrees with Bun Chhay's assessment of the CPP's campaign. Chhay Eang says the SRP

only hands out bread and rice during its rallies, which he feels is acceptable.

He is concerned that people feel they have to pay respect to parties for their gifts,

but also believes villagers will "take money but have different ideas".

He adds, with a laugh, that there's only one reason people show up for "repetitive

and boring" CPP speeches: "Since the first day of the campaign until now,

there haven't been any serious problems. But now we have one problem-gift and money

donations. The CPP has a strategy to distribute rice to the people. If the CPP did

not give rice and money, maybe no one would come to their rallies except the village

chief."

Regardless of how much food and cash is-or is not-doled out to voters, all three

claim they are confident of garnering the majority of votes. Bun Chhay and Chhay

Eang both say the country is ready for a change of leadership.

Sar Kheng, naturally, disagrees and says the CPP's four million supporters will prove

them wrong: "It is normal in a campaign for everyone to say they are going to

win-they never say they're going to lose. But the truth will come at the end of the

election."

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