With its campaign for subnational council elections well under way, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party is putting forth an optimistic message about its prospects in the vote, even going so far as to predict that ruling party voters will bolster its share of the ballots.
However, with decision-making still concentrated at the national level, some observers yesterday questioned whether the party would be able to wield any significant powers even if it were to make unprecedented inroads into the country’s district, provincial and municipal councils.
Given its modest gains in 2012’s elections for commune councillors – who will be the only voters in the subnational election – the CNRP is assured of securing wider support on May 18, and yesterday CNRP president Sam Rainsy said that “this time, based on math, we would control, even if no [Cambodian People’s Party voter] changes sides, at least six districts”.
With the outpouring of opposition support in last year’s national elections, he said, many councillors elected under the CPP in 2012 “must realise that [their] voters have switched sides”, and vote accordingly.
Control at the district and provincial levels would be a first for the opposition, and the CNRP’s “first [goal] is to make local democracy vibrant, to consult the people”, Rainsy said, particularly on matters relating to the Kingdom’s oft-maligned land management policies.
But according to Ngann Chamroeun, deputy director of the secretariat of the National Committee for Sub-National Democratic Development, most land management issues – apart from the approval of licences for small construction projects – are still made at the national level, while subnational councils serve “to listen to the needs of the people”.
Most commonly, they initiate infrastructure projects like rural road building, Chamroeun continued, but subnational councils can also draft local ordinances as long as they are “aligned with” national laws, a determination made by governors, who are appointees nominated by the minister of interior.
Despite the CNRP’s optimism, political analyst Lao Mong Hay said yesterday that subnational councils wield very little independent power, and, “at this stage, [are] more like the creations of positions for retired [ruling] party members”.
“They can pass resolutions, but it depends very much on the governors . . . who represent the central power,” Mong Hay said.
Councils also can’t raise local taxes, he said, “so today [funding] all depends very much on the central government”.
What’s more, Mong Hay said, the CNRP’s numbers at the commune level “are not, altogether, substantial” – the opposition holds 2,955 seats to the CPP’s nearly 8,300 – and while some CPP councillors may vote with their changing constituencies, “not many” will.
Preap Kol of Transparency International Cambodia said yesterday that the new councils’ independence may in part depend on a political solution at the national level trickling down to the subnational level. “If the CNRP still refuses to take their seats, and the political dispute has not been settled by the CPP and CNRP, that’s going to have an effect on the subnational councils,” he said.