Former Sam Rainsy Party Commune Chief Seang Chet kicked off the two-week commune election campaign period on Saturday in the bed of a truck plastered with Cambodia National Rescue Party banners, calling out a rhetorical question to nearby villagers: “Do you know who I am?”
Indeed, Chet’s profile extends well beyond his Srok commune constituency in Kampong Cham province, albeit not for the reasons he may have hoped. Chet was thrust into the national spotlight last April after being swept up in authorities’ enthusiastic investigation of an alleged love affair between CNRP President Kem Sokha and a hairdresser named Khom Chandaraty.
The commune chief was accused of attempting to bribe Chandaraty’s mother to deny the affair for $500 – a sum he says was sent to him by overseas party supporters to supplement the hairdresser’s loss of a job, and which was never accepted by the family. Picked up by the Anti-Corruption Unit, Chet spent nearly nine months in pretrial detention, with a swift two-minute trial finding him guilty of bribing a witness and sentencing him to five years in prison.
He was released in December after a political deal was struck that saw both him and Sokha – who had been convicted for ignoring repeated court summonses – receive royal pardons.
Stopping at an intersection on Saturday to allow a slightly larger Cambodian People’s Party rally to pass, Chet turned to villagers and again asked: “Do you know who I am?”
“You know who I am. I am Seang Chet, the one who was released from prison,” he said. “Vote for the CNRP.”
One look at the ballot for the upcoming election of June 4, however, shows that Chet’s name is missing. Not eligible to run because his prison term prevented him from registering to vote, Chet has found a surrogate to run in Srok commune: his wife.
“Yes, my wife is at home. I am campaigning for her,” he said, before turning his attention back to the villagers.
Despite his freedom, Chet quickly realised his return to the political arena would have to wait. He had missed the November 30 voter registration deadline, and candidates have to be on the voter rolls to run for local office.
After consultations with the CNRP leadership and lawyers, Chet had a solution; his wife, Sreng Sokhoeun, would run in his place.
Chet said he has made it clear to his constituents – if they agree with him, they should vote for Sokhoeun. “Even if my wife stays at home, they know they should vote for her,” he said.
While he attempts to focus on development and local issues, there is no hiding that Chet is looking to use his prison term as an electoral issue, although without any malice or bitterness, he said.
“I am not angry with the ACU. I am not even angry with Chandaraty and her mother,” he said. “Because I know there are powerful men behind this trick.”
Conspicuous in her absence on the campaign trail, Sokhoeun was at the couple’s home in Lpeak village in Srok commune while her husband tried to convince voters nearby.
Surrounded by half a dozen grandchildren, the mother of five sons shyly said that she was more than happy to leave the campaigning to her husband.
Much more reserved than Chet, Sokhoeun’s answers are peppered with nervous giggles, a stark contrast to her husband’s confident demeanour, which remains intact despite his recent stint in prison.
“He has the experience and will help me if I win,” she said. “But I know I can do it.”
Chet wrested his seat from the ruling party in 2012 in his first foray into elected office. Coming from a relatively well-off family, Chet was known in the commune for helping people, whether by buying them food in times of financial hardship or organising last rites for the locale’s poorer residents.
Sokhoeun, meanwhile, comes into the race a novice. With no experience in public office, Chet’s wife has so far played the role of breadwinner – managing a 5-hectare farm as well as other agricultural projects – a point accentuated by local vendor Ly Channa, as she walked by the couple’s home.
“People know her. Her heart is within Uncle [Chet] because she earns for him,” Channa said, not hiding who she would vote for.
Separating two quarrelling grandchildren, Sokhoeun said she is certain her husband’s goodwill in the commune – garnered over years of helping the poor and needy – will take her over the finish line come June 4.
“He has used money from our family to help people,” she said. “He doesn’t care which party the people support.”
While admitting her husband will assist her, Sokhoeun does not intend to be a mere rubberstamp.
Having worked as a farmer for years, she has seen firsthand the turmoil inflicted by recently deflated crop prices and wants to find a way to ensure her constituents get a fair market price.
“But for that the national government has to change and we need to start that now,” she said.
Sokhoeun’s candidacy makes Srok’s pick for a commune chief a family affair. The CPP candidate is her sister’s brother-in-law, whom she said has only defected from the opposition recently, though she quickly moved to another subject.
“I don’t know a lot about him, but I know my sister will vote for me,” she said. “And her husband will vote for his brother.”
A few kilometres away, a contingent of more than 50 CPP supporters, dressed in light blue shirts with neatly printed party logos, entered the party’s commune headquarters around noon after rallying around Srok and Trean communes.
The reluctance to delve into the family connection was mirrored by the ruling party candidate Sort Soan. While acknowledging the ties, he refused to comment on them.“They also said I was a CNRP activist,” he said. “I was just a regular villager who joined the CPP.”
Taking a break from the daylong road show, Soan wiped the sweat off his brow before laying out the case against Chet and Sokhoeun.
“He is not on the list and she has no popularity,” he said. “So it will not work [for them].”
He said the one-term commune chief had failed to make any progress on irrigation, roads and other development projects in the commune, saying the budget was provided by the national government but not utilised by Chet.
“The villagers have seen that there is no development with the CNRP,” he said.
Chet disagreed, saying he has used all of the 63 million riel (about $15,750) provided to him to construct 4 kilometres of road and has also convinced a local NGO to provide villages with purified drinking water at a low cost.
Chet acknowledged the unconventional situation he has put his wife in, but he contends it will be in the villagers’ best interests to have him associated with the commune’s future local council. Despite his confidence on the campaign trail, he was aware that one misstep could lead to a repeat of last year’s hassles.
“I also have to be careful because I can advise my wife at home but cannot enter the commune hall,” he said.