Breaking into a medium almost universally controlled by the ruling party, acting opposition president Kem Sokha squared off yesterday against rival legislators during the filming of what may well have been Cambodia’s first televised national election debate.
The debate at the state-run TVK studios, which featured questions from the audience, represents one of the biggest opportunities the Cambodia National Rescue Party has had to give an in-depth dissemination of its platform, while at the same time responding directly to that of its chief opponent, which it has long criticised for avoiding debates.
“I think this kind of debate is of a very great benefit, especially for the opposition party, given the fact that the opposition has little access to the broadcast media, particularly TV,” said Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambodia Institute for Media Studies.
“I think many Cambodians, particularly those who cannot read or write, love to watch TV,” he continued, adding that this was especially true in the countryside, where the Cambodian People’s Party has historically enjoyed strong support.
The participation of the ruling party in the televised debate will also broaden its appeal in rural areas, Chhean Nariddh said, noting that, in elections past, people were afraid to be seen consuming non-CPP-aligned media.
“Even now they have opened up a little bit, but consuming independent and opposition media in public is still a bit of a fear in rural areas,” he said.
“Now to have state media broadcasting a debate of all parties, including the ruling party, it gives them an opportunity to see the opposition activities without fear.”
According to Laura Thornton, senior director of the National Democratic Institute (NDI), which organised the debate, the three candidates from the CNRP, CPP and the Khmer Economic Development Party gave a “very professional” showing of their parties’ platforms.
“I thought they did really well. Again, I think the questions could have been a little more diverse, and a little stronger, but they did tackle a lot of key issues,” she said.
“Unfortunately, they didn’t delve into details about healthcare and education, but you can’t cover anything.”
The talking points featured in the debate — which airs on TVK on July 20, 21, 24 and 25 — would be familiar to anyone versed in Cambodian politics.
CPP candidate Sok Eysan — who delivered his points in a level tone of voice and frequently read directly from his notes — largely hewed to his party’s pet themes of development, economic growth and the CPP’s historical role in ousting the Khmer Rouge.
The CNRP’s Sokha did roughly the same, albeit in a more personable fashion, adhering for the most part to long-held opposition lines on illegal immigration, sovereignty and human rights issues.
Eysan, for his part, responded to an audience question on “human rights abuse”, by saying: “You believe that there are human rights issues in Cambodia. That is your opinion – that is not a fact.”
However, the most dynamic of the three speakers was KEDP president Huon Reach Chamroeun. Speaking in a firm, rapid cadence, Reach Chamroeun waved his finger and chopped at the air as he presented a platform best characterised as an opposition-minded emphasis on anti-corruption and youth development, married with a ruling-party focus on investment and development.
But whatever the platform, political analyst Lao Mong Hay said, it may be “too late” for parties to take any votes away from the ruling CPP, even with national television as a megaphone.
“How do you make up [for lost time] … when one party has been monopolising the mass media all year round, the past five years, 365 days?” Mong Hay asked.
Student and CPP supporter Hun Panhavorn, who attended the debate, falls into the camp of those whose minds are made up.
“I don’t want to change my mind. They are a good party to lead my country,” he said, adding that the CPP had always helped the poor, and had even helped him pay for his education. “The CPP helped my family, helped me go to study.”