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A gift for electioneering

Prime Minister Hun Sen gives a donation to workers at the Stung Meanchey flyover site in 2013.
Prime Minister Hun Sen gives a donation to workers at the Stung Meanchey flyover site in 2013. May Titthara

A gift for electioneering

The common practice of officials doling out small gifts before elections does little to attract the vote of anyone on either side of the political divide, and people who vote for the CPP often do so in spite of – and not because of – handouts, a new study says.

Published in this month’s Pacific Affairs, a paper by Swedish academic Astrid Noren-Nilsson finds that the perception that election gifts like MSG and kramas are given as a quid-pro-quo breeds resentment and “suggests that the CPP should abandon this model”.

The conclusions are based on interviews with 192 people – 64 people at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park during the December 2013 protests, 64 living in the Chamkar Doung area on the capital’s outskirts and 64 living in two rural villages in Kandal province.

Those areas, Noren-Nilsson wrote, were chosen to include large samples of people who voted for both the CPP and CNRP according to the official 2013 national election results, and the study finds that most people felt uneasy about the practice of gift-giving.

“They give if they win the elections, but not if they don’t,” a respondent is quoted as saying, explaining election gifts were widely viewed as naked bribes. “It is as if they want to have results from us.”

“Gift-giving would be a good practice if they would give regardless of whether they win or not. Sometimes at gift-giving ceremonies, they say ‘take the gifts if you want, if not, don’t take them, if you want to vote then vote, if not, then don’t,’” the respondent says.

“But after the elections, when their tally dropped in our commune, they questioned why we took their gifts but didn’t vote for them. If they want to give, why don’t they give certain months or years, but only before elections?”

Many respondents, the academic says, reported seeing the gifts as trifling substitutions for what they really wanted – better wages or living conditions, or else higher-quality government services.

Noren-Nilsson also found that even those who reported voting for the CPP said they did so not due to the gifts but rather other reasons, like gratitude for the 1979 overthrow of Pol Pot, or simple habit.

As evidence, Noren-Nilsson, who also wrote the book Cambodia’s Second Kingdom: Nation, Imagination, and Democracy, points to responses in the Kandal villages of Thmo Sar and Phoum Thmey, which she said expressed the most CPP support.

“Yet, even here, only a third considered CPP gift giving to be a good practice. Another third considered it a negative, whilst the last third considered it to have both good and bad elements,” she wrote.

The academic explains such gift-giving was only seen as “good” by the pro-CPP respondents who believed the gifts had no strings attached and were charitable expressions of the merit of officials.

“Even CPP supporters tend to support CPP in spite of – not thanks to – its gift-giving practices, which are taken not to evidence merit, but vice,” she wrote, stressing how vital avoiding the image of vote-buying was.

“A desired ideal of gift giving persists. But this prescribed form of gift giving dictates that it would not discriminate according to political party affiliation and that it would require nothing in return.”

Yet Noren-Nilsson notes only five of the 192 people interviewed acknowledged voting for the CPP out of gratitude for gifts, suggesting that this result may not be worth the “political tension” created by the perception of vote buying.

CPP spokespeople Suos Yara and Chim Phal Virun both declined to be interviewed about the study while Sok Eysan, who is also a spokesperson for the party, was overseas and could not be reached yesterday.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan and Chheang Vun, spokesman for the CPP at the National Assembly, also could not be reached for comment about Noren-Nilsson’s research findings.

However, Koul Panha, director of local elections monitor Com-frel, said that he still believed gift-giving could have a large impact on people’s voting behaviour, even if to a lesser degree than years past.

“Maybe the amount is not the same as before, but it still does influence people,” Panha said. “There was one study long ago by the Asia Foundation that about 17 percent people were influenced by vote buying when they received money or gifts.”

“If it was a reasonable amount, and they accepted, they would vote for them,” he explained.

Panha acknowledged that the growth of social media had made people more aware of social issues, and so could have reduced the impact of gift giving.

“There are some changes, and the current situation is not like before. People understand things better. And before, the poverty was so bad, but now people are slowly getting better, with better incomes, and they are able to get better information,” Panha said.

“They have this information from social media, so it would probably be reduced, but the size of this effect is not yet clear. I am happy to see this study.”

Lee Morgenbesser, a researcher at Australia’s Griffith University, earlier this year published a research paper arguing that larger patronage practices – which see regimes predicate services like roads and schools on votes – would likely protect the CPP from ever losing a vote.

His paper, published in Contemporary Politics, found that the link between voting for a ruling party and receiving local spending weakened the “democratizing” effect that elections would otherwise have on authoritarian regimes by making it harder for a population to scare the government by voting against it.

Yet Morgenbesser, who also wrote Behind the Facade: Elections Under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia, said that he did not think his findings conflicted with Noren-Nilsson’s about gift-giving around election time, adding that the politics of patronage was complex.

“To give you a short answer, I would trust Astrid’s findings,” Morgenbesser wrote in an email. “There is an inherent weakness to electoral patronage. If the CPP dictates the exchange process, rather than negotiates it, then they will lose legitimacy.”

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