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Thousands of people gather on Phnom Penh’s Monivong Boulevard on July 24 to pay their respects to slain political analyst Kem Ley.

Cambodia’s commune elections: A political tipping point

After a surprisingly close election in 2013, the CNRP is looking to consolidate its gains while the CPP hopes to maintain its grip at the commune level.

So what’s at stake on June 4?

Chan Chem sits on a concrete bench dressed in only a pair of navy shorts and dark sunglasses. The 96-year-old is a resident of Kampong Cham’s Sandek commune, the heart of former Foreign Minister Hor Namhong’s traditional bastion of Batheay district.

The commune went for the Cambodian People’s Party – holding five of the seven council seats – during the 2012 commune elections, and this support is best illustrated in Chem’s loyalty for the Kingdom’s “grand old party”.

“I love and like the party because it makes roads and the people happy,” he says.

The old-timer’s priorities are straightforward: the CPP has built the infrastructure needed by the commune and his vote will remain with the party.

Reluctantly, he admits that his village has yet to receive state-supplied electricity and has to rely on private suppliers, but that was not enough to sway his vote.

“Speaking frankly, this time the CNRP will not win – the CPP will win,” he says. “Because many people still support the party.”

However, 500 metres away on a muddy back road, Sem Ath shared a different view, saying the commune needs a set of “new clothes”.

Turning away from a boiling pot of rice, Ath says she is not sure who she will vote for, but she wants change and estimates that a majority of the commune feels the same.

“I want to wear new clothes. Many people want to try new clothes, even in a new colour,” she says, in hushed tones. “The old ones have holes in them.”

Prime Minister Hun Sen talks to students in Takeo province during a provincial tour. Photo supplied

Prime Minister Hun Sen talks to students in Takeo province during a provincial tour. Photo supplied

On June 4, Chem, Ath and many of the 7.8 million registered Cambodian voters will head to polling stations to cast their ballots in what observers see as a bellwether election just 13 months out from the national polls.

Twelve political parties and around 88,000 commune council candidates are vying to run in 1,646 communes across the Kingdom. A two-week campaign period that will see them rallying around the country to gain support will kick off on Saturday.

Although commune elections are local affairs, next month’s polls have the potential to have a major impact on the political landscape in the years to come, and more is at stake than many realise.

After a lacklustre performance in 2012 – when the Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party won a combined 40 communes to the CPP’s 1,592 – the consolidated force of the Cambodia National Rescue Party will look to reap the benefits of their unexpectedly strong showing in the 2013 national elections.

In a surprise rebound from 2012, the CNRP won 55 of the 123 parliamentary seats in the National Assembly, and will look at their performance in the next few weeks as a precursor to their chances at gaining in power next year.

“I want to wear new clothes. Many people want to try new clothes. The old ones have holes in them.”

Dealt a major blow, the CPP has since amplified its time-tested strategy of putting the opposition, civil society and dissidents on the back foot – through violent and threatening rhetoric, and more recently through legally fragile cases to harass rivals, largely aided by what is widely viewed as the party’s control over the judiciary.

While June 4 will not immediately change the composition of the government, Sebastian Strangio, author of the contemporary history book Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said it would be a test of the ruling party’s strategy after the scare of the last parliamentary elections.

On the one hand, he says, the party has made strategic changes to its patronage system by reshuffling the government to bring young and technocratic members into the cabinet, and has even increased wages. But it has not given up on the second prong of its attack – the spectre of fear.

“Suffice to say fear has worked before and the party is hoping that fear with a spoonful of sugar, so to speak, will help to secure its continued hold on power at the local level,” he says.

Failure to repeat 2012 in the commune elections will send shockwaves through the CPP, Strangio says, but will further push them to double down on their pursuit to “secure victory by whatever means necessary” next year.

Timeline: Events that shaped Cambodia’s 2013 general election

Opposition leader Kem Sokha greets supporters at an event in March in Kampong Cham province. Photo supplied

Opposition leader Kem Sokha greets supporters at an event in March in Kampong Cham province. Photo supplied

The impact of intimidation

Back in Kampong Cham, Luong Touy sits in his home excited for the CNRP’s prospects in Khnor Dambang commune – one of only 12 constituencies the opposition won out of the province’s 173 communes.

The former Human Rights Party member failed to win a commune council seat last time around, but with his named ranked third on the CNRP’s list, he is hopeful.

“We will get more [seats] because people have expressed that they are unhappy and bored with the CPP,” he says. “The CPP comes to help them [villagers] only during the election time.”

But people are weighing in on more than just the local issues, and recent events have touched an already raw nerve.

It is unclear how public perception of political interference and intimidation – including arrest warrants against former opposition president Sam Rainsy and legal threats to current CNRP President Kem Sokha – will translate at the polls.

On the sidelines of the Sokha episode, the pre-trial detention of the “Adhoc 5” – four human rights staffers and one election official – has cast a shadow over the election. Meanwhile, perhaps no event over the last five years has elicited more outrage than the 2016 killing of Kem Ley, the popular political commentator. He was gunned down in broad daylight days after he had spoken about a damning report released by Global Witness on the Hun family’s business ties.

Ley was widely perceived as a voice of reason for the average citizen after the 2013 elections, and his death was seen as a government-backed conspiracy, despite the swift conviction of the shooter, Oeuth Ang.

When asked why they would not vote for the ruling party, half a dozen residents in Khnor Dambang and Sandek communes skirted topics of repression, merely citing a desire for “change”. But CNRP candidates and leaders are hoping the parade of high-profile incidents will have struck a nerve.

“People in the commune are suffering when they see these national issues, like the Kem Ley [killing] or the CNRP’s leaders [troubles], and it is converted into jointly voting for change,” Touy says animatedly.

Chan Chem at home in Kampong Cham’s Sandek commune.

Luong Touy, a CNRP candidate in Khnor Dambang commune.

Chan Chem at home in Kampong Cham’s Sandek commune (Left) and Luong Touy, a CNRP candidate in Khnor Dambang commune (Right). Ananth Baliga

This sentiment is shared by CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua. Whereas previous commune elections focused on the candidate in question, Sochua believes a shift has taken place.

“The voters used to vote for a candidate. Now they want to vote for the party,” she says.

Sochua believes the CNRP will make inroads in the traditional CPP strongholds of the rural grassroots, claiming the same had happened in the 2013 elections.

For her, the main aim for next month’s election is potential gains in the Senate. “That is what is at stake in this election,” she says.

The 61-member upper house of the Cambodian parliament is selected by councils of commune officials and National Assembly members. While the CPP currently holds a comfortable majority of 46 senators to the Sam Rainsy Party’s 11 – along with four ostensibly independent members – those seats are up for grabs next year.

“If we get a majority of commune councillors then we could gain many more seats in the Senate,” Sochua says.

“The voters used to vote for a candidate. Now they want to vote for the party.”

A majority in the Senate would enable the opposition to block legislation, almost certainly increasing their clout in the lawmaking process.

While Sochua says that the party could win at least half of the commune chief posts, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan was far more reluctant to make a prediction.

“We are not fortune tellers, but we hope we will win a majority,” he says. “Go and ask the fortune tellers at Wat Phnom.”

Eysan said the party had accelerated development at the commune level, and that any attempts to paint the last five years as a failure would be futile.

“Even if just our 5 million members vote for us, we will automatically win,” he says.

Eysan brushed aside any impact of the political crackdown on the CNRP, the Adhoc 5 detentions or the murder of Kem Ley, saying only people with “negative thoughts” would take them into consideration when entering the polling station.

Mourners escort the body of Kem Ley.

Mourners escort the body of Kem Ley. Athena Zelandonii

Political analyst Cham Bunthet expressed worry that any opposition gains could result in a backlash on the ground from the ruling party.

“The amount of money going down to the grassroots could be affected because it will probably go to the, for example, 60 percent who voted for the CPP and the [other] 40 percent will suffer financial freezing,” he says.

For Bunthet, the only way to get around this is to find reconciliation. That reconciliation, he says, will have to come from the opposition.

“You cannot expect the ruler to change his nature, only the ruled can call and demand for change,” he said. “As the oppressed [people] we need to have a clear agenda of reconciliation with the oppressor.”