Prime Minister Hun Sen, CPP. Sam Rainsy, SRP. Prince Ranariddh, Funcinpec.
Cambodia's first commune elections, set for February, will boast another first: open
debate between candidates and the public on local governance and policy issues that
affect the day-to-day lives at the grassroots level.
In a country whose recent history has been marred by violence and political intimidation
and where arguments have been solved through the barrel of a gun, the dramatic development
promises to liven up the election process.
"If successful, the exercise could prove to be a big leap for Cambodia's democratization
process, creating a truly democratic tradition of free speech and expression,"
said Dr Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy (KID).
His organization is sponsoring the event in association with the US-based National
Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI).
All six political parties, including arch rivals CPP-Funcinpec and SRP, have nominated
their local candidates, signifying a willingness to provide voters with an opportunity
to make an informed choice for commune council candidates on polling day, February
The debates are scheduled to take place in seven key districts and will be held during
the election campaign, which begins January 18. The NDI said that districts were
chosen to encourage participation of as many registered political parties as possible.
The smaller parties have registered in only a handful of the total 1,621 communes;
the three largest are represented in almost all.
Candidate debates are a common feature of elections in the world's major democracies
but are unknown thus far in Cambodia. The commune elections will follow the system
used in the national elections, where voters cast their ballot for the party of their
choice, not the candidates.
Each party then nominates its candidates for the positions on the commune councils.
This, however, means that voters have little opportunity to know who will represent
"Voters going to the polls should know who they are voting for and how the candidates
intend to fix the commune problems," said NDI director Eric Kessler. "Candidate
debates will help shift the focus of the election from national political party platforms
and charismatic party leaders to candidates' own plans to directly improve the lives
of the citizens of their commune."
The candidate debates will follow half-day community group discussion sessions in
respective communes between candidates and local residents from different walks of
life. These will help citizens chart the priority issues in their respective communes
that they would like their newly-elected commune councilors to address.
Before that, candidates will attend a brief training session where they will learn
debating techniques, sharpen their public speaking skills and understand the format
and rules of the debate.
The man who will moderate the debates is Heng Mony Chenda, director of Buddhism For
Development. He is a former Buddhist monk and a graduate of Harvard's Kennedy School
of Government in the US. He is widely respected and regarded as non-partisan, two
"The choice of a moderator was critical since a too prominent figure could kill
the debate. We needed someone who was highly qualified and enjoyed confidence and
equal respect of all the political parties but still was not a very famous name,"
said Dr Lao.
Several nagging concerns, however, remain. Considering the long standing bitterness
between the SRP and the CPP-Funcinpec coalition and the past history of personal
attacks, critics were afraid the debate that brought rival candidates face to face
on a common platform could easily deteriorate into a slanging match.
There was also some doubt as to whether Cambodia's rural electorate was amenable
to the idea of questioning local political leaders when, in the past, any such effort
was met with intimidation and threats of retribution against those who dared challenge
their local political lords. Mony Chenda said his experiences showed that was not
"During the course of my interactions with grassroots people in Battambang and
Banteay Meanchey provinces, I was amazed to learn how even young women who have never
been to school could talk so strongly about issues that affect them. It is a wrong
impression that the rural, illiterate people are not smart enough to express their
opinions clearly," said Mony Chenda.
To gauge the public mood, KID recently organized a forum in four Phnom Penh communes.
The results, said Dr Lao, were surprising, particularly those from women.
"Though shy at first, they became quite vocal after being assured by the local
authorities that they were free to voice their opinions," he recalled.
Typical among the issues raised by the electorate were the need to build a dike around
a low-lying village on the outskirts of Phnom Penh, construction of a canal to drain
flood water from the village, establishing a vocational training center since school
education alone was not leading to jobs, and better quality teachers and teaching
"Though better infrastructure, security, and law and order remain basic issues
all over the Kingdom, many more such purely local issues will be brought out by the
public, setting a development agenda for the newly elected councilors. In the end,
the public will vote for those who can solve their problems, and not those who can
attack their rivals better," Mony Chenda said.
The success of the 2002 debates, NDI said, would prove an important step towards
participatory democracy, setting a precedent for the 2003 national elections. USAid
will fund the exercise, which will run January 19-31 and cover one commune in Kampong
Speu, Siem Reap, Kampong Cham, Kampot and Svey Rieng provinces and two communes in