A few days ahead of the reality television triumph that changed her life, Eang Linda was modest about her chances.
“It is going … normal. Not very well. It’s kind of hard to talk with students,” she said, handing out flyers to girls and monks outside Pannasastra University.
A smartly dressed 20-year-old with a blunt fringe, Linda was harnessing the youth vote before the finale of Next Generation, a televised political debate show funded by USAID and organised by the International Republican Institute (IRI).
The finale, screened live on MyTV on Friday and rebroadcast on CNC on Saturday, centred on whether provincial governors should be elected rather than appointed.
Three phone voting lines – one for each of the candidates – were opened and, after successfully arguing on the side of elections, Linda drew more than 2,000 votes, edging out rivals Kongkea Mao, 25, and Seak Leng, 23.
The three remained from the original field of 24 contestants, all between the ages of 18 and 27 and most of whom were voted off in previous shows.
Previous episodes of the weekly one-hour show, known as Neak Beantor Vean in Khmer, have featured young people debating controversial issues like the legalisation of prostitution and the politicisation of monks.
But this week’s issue was particularly timely, as electoral change has been a key demand by the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in talks with the government.
“IRI chose the topic of provincial governors as the final debate topic given the relevant electoral reform discussions now under way in the country,” said Jessica Keegan, country director for Cambodia at IRI, which has produced similar programs in Georgia and Guyana.
“The idea of bringing representative politics closer to the people is not a new concept for Cambodia, but it is a relatively new topic for television.”
The first prize, handed out by Ou Virak, chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, and Jeff Daigle, charge d’affaires at the US embassy, includes a study tour of Washington DC, including meetings on Capitol Hill with lawmakers from the House and Senate.
Accepting the trophy, Linda said: “I am a small person, but I’m solid like the core of a tree. I will learn all that I can when I’m in the United States, and bring that knowledge back to my country where I want to work to improve Cambodia.”
Linda has come a long way from her roots in Kampong Chhnang province, where, growing up, she had no aspirations to involve herself with government.
“My family told me to stay away from politics. But as I grew up, I feel like something went wrong with our society,” she said.
She started to develop an interest in social issues and applied to take part in Next Generation at her sister’s urging, on the last day before the deadline.
Although she is studying business administration at Pannasastra, she hasn’t ruled out entering the political arena later in life.
“Sometimes when I’m working on my campaign I feel like I should be a politician,” she said.
Yesterday, Linda’s Facebook page was flooded with comments.
“Congratulations on your achievement, but don’t forget me,” one person implored.