Vote-buying claims further diminish hope for council elections
Photo by: CHRISTOPHER SHAY
A Sam Rainsy Party commune councilor speaks at party headquarters Thursday about allegations of CPP vote buying.
OBSERVERS are predicting few surprises when Cambodia's 11,353 commune councilors go to the polls to elect the country's first district, provincial and municipal councils Sunday.
But election monitors and government officials remain divided on the utility of the "indirect" elections, amid a fresh wave of vote-buying claims by the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.
Two local election monitors - Comfrel and Nicfec - say they will boycott the elections, claiming the results are a foregone conclusion and that the US$1.6 million in administrative costs are not justified.
"We are boycotting because of the election system itself," said Koul Panha, Comfrel's executive director, adding that the number of district and provincial councilors should simply be calculated in proportion to existing commune councils.
Nicfec Executive Director Hang Puthea said the cost of last year's national election, in which around 8 million Cambodians cast their ballots, was around $2.60 per voter, while the May 17 poll will cost around $140.
"We know who will vote for whom, so we don't want to waste more money on this election," he said.
Meanwhile, election officials said preparations for the elections were progressing "smoothly", and that the new councils would advance the government's much-mooted decentralisation and deconcentration program, shifting more decision-making power to the local level.
"This election is very important because [the new] provincial, district and municipal councils will govern within their territory according to the government's policy of promoting democratic development," said Tep Nytha, secretary general of the National Election Committee (NEC).
Koul Panha agreed the presence of opposition parties at the provincial and district level would infuse a fresh political voice into local government, but that this influence and decision-making power would likely by "limited" by the Cambodian People's Party's large majority at the commune level.
WE KNOW WHO WILL VOTE FOR WHOM, SO WE DON’T WANT TO WASTE MONEY ON THIS....
"[The opposition] might not have effective power, but they will have a voice and they can access local authorities' planning and decisions," he said.
The CPP holds 7,993 seats at the commune level, with the Sam Rainsy Party a distant second with 2,660. Funcinpec holds 274, the Norodom Ranariddh Party 425, and the Hang Dara Democratic Movement has just one seat.
Cash for votes?
Despite the prospect of long-term gains, Koul Panha said the elections had created "problems" in the short term, citing fresh opposition allegations the CPP has engaged in vote-buying in an attempt to divide its opponents and snatch a crucial few extra votes.
At a press conference Thursday, the SRP screened a video clip containing testimony from around 40 of its commune councilors who say ruling party officials offered them money to vote against their own party. The cost of a vote, councilors said, was between $500 and $1,000.
Sean Sear, a commune councilor from Phnom Penh's Russey Keo district who was present at the press conference, said Phnom Penh Governor Kep Chuktema had promised to provide him with "a plot of land and money to build a house".
Long Sophal, a councilor from Prampi Makara district, also claimed CPP officials offered to resolve a housing dispute in exchange for his vote.
"I think that when the SRP holds seats on the provincial, district and municipal councils, the CPP will be concerned, [because it] will be difficult for them to take part in corruption and other illegal activities related to natural resources," SRP President Sam Rainsy said.
"The CPP is concerned there will be a decline in its decision making power, and they have therefore used a strategy of buying votes from the SRP."
He said the party would file complaints to the NEC outlining its allegations, including one against Kep Chuktema. The governor could not be reached for comment.
But senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap rejected the accusations, saying the party had "never advised" them to buy votes from the opposition.
"We have no money to buy votes, but we have had a clear political strategy to persuade voters, and we hope that commune councilors from other parties will vote for us on Sunday," he said.
He added that the new councils would actually be a boon for the opposition parties, giving them a voice at the local level and a forum for airing new ideas.
Tep Nytha said the NEC had so far received three complaints from the SRP relating to vote buying, and that the Municipal Election Committee was currently conducting investigations.
"During the election campaign each political party has tried to persuade the voters to vote for their party, which is not a problem so long as the promises did not violate the law," he said.
He said any party found guilty of buying votes or breaking other election regulations would be forced to withdraw candidates from consideration in the elections.