Cambodia's apex rice industry body held its annual general meeting on Saturday, with its members unanimously re-electing its well-connected incumbent president, Sok Puthyvuth, for a second term in what some are calling a dress rehearsal for his political ascendancy.
Puthyvuth, the son of Deputy Prime Minister Sok An and son-in-law of Prime Minister Hun Sen, was re-elected as head of the Cambodian Rice Federation (CRF) after receiving 113 out of a total 215 votes.
His lone competitor, Te Taing Por, president of the Federation of Associations for Small and Medium Enterprises of Cambodia (FASMEC), received 79 votes. Twelve board council members were also chosen.
The CRF was founded in May 2014 with 213 members representing rice-farming communities, millers and exporters, with Puthyvuth elected as its first president for a two-year term. The founding members and 30 additional companies were eligible to vote in Saturday’s elections, which gave the incumbent another two-year mandate.
Puthyvuth, 36, who is also CEO of the conglomerate Soma Group, said his re-election would serve to unify the industry body, which has been rocked by internal dissent in recent months.
“I vow to strengthen the sector’s standards and production efficiency in order to compete with the international market,” he told reporters, adding that in the short run the CRF would focus on stopping illegal rice imports and providing loan packages to struggling millers.
In the longer term, the focus would shift toward building warehouses to stockpile paddy rice, expanding the market and lowering production costs to make Cambodia’s most important agricultural crop more internationally competitive, he said.
Puthyvuth had come under fire during recent months for what his critics said was ineffectual leadership as the rice sector stood on the brink of collapse.
One critic, Kann Kunthy, CEO of Battambang Rice Investment Co Ltd (BRICo), said CRF members wanted a new president, but were stuck with just two undesirable candidates.
Taing Por’s inexperience in the rice industry thwarted his election bid, leaving members to re-elect Puthyvuth despite what many thought was a poor performance during his first mandate.
Kunthy said Puthyvuth was looking to redeem himself in a second mandate, possibly to build up his leadership credibility in the public’s eye for a future foray into politics.
“Because he faced a lot of criticism of his leadership of the rice sector during his first mandate, Sok Puthyvuth wanted to continue his duties so he could build up his credibility,” he said.
“If he does a good job in the rice sector, you can expect he will use the experience to join politics in the future.”Puthyvuth insisted yesterday his election bid was strictly about improving the rice sector, but that he might one day consider taking public office.
“Right now I have no ideas about politics as I must focus on how to save the rice industry,” he said. “But later if I have the capacity to join politics then I will try.”
However, some analysts said Puthyvuth’s election trail bore all the hallmarks of a political contest, with lofty campaign promises and pre-election sweeteners to endear his constituents.
His victory comes just a week after the CRF secured an agreement with the government to distribute up to $30 million in emergency loans to struggling rice millers and exporters.
Tang Chhong Ngy, marketing manager of LBN Angkor (Kampuchea), suggested the timing of the industry aid package – just days before elections – was not a coincidence.
However, he said CRF members were more likely swayed by the belief that Puthyvuth’s name carried influence, and while some were critical of his performance during his first mandate, the recognition that about 80 per cent of the sector’s strategy had already been set up and a second mandate would give him a chance to implement the reforms.
According to Ngy, CRF members re-elected Puthyvuth mainly because “he can play an effective role in negotiating with the government as he is the son of the deputy prime minister, which makes it easier for him to raise issues to the ministries concerned”.
“However, now the pressure is on and the re-elected CRF president has to follow through on all the promises he made,” he added.