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
"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
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
"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
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
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
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