Opinion: Don't underestimate the importance of commune elections

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A CPP campaign rally crosses paths with an opposition CNRP rally in the capital's Meanchey district on the first day of campaigning last month. Pha Lina

Opinion: Don't underestimate the importance of commune elections

By Tong Soprach, social affairs columnist for the Post’s Khmer edition

The upcoming 4th mandate of commune council elections is an achievement resulting from the Decentralisation and Deconcentration Reforms (D&D) starting in 2000, with commune elections arranged for the first time in 2002.

Since then, every commune election has usually received less participation compared to national elections, a concerning trend since some people view the commune election as less important. Meanwhile, with fewer parties competing, the dynamic of campaigns seems to become less energetic.

What’s more, many people rarely think of their commune or sangkat chief until they need their help with some paperwork. Even then, they often find that their representative has left the office to attend a meeting at the district party headquarters. For anyone who has found themselves in that position, it should serve as a wake-up call, reminding voters just how important it is to choose their local representative.

In addition, commune councils play an important role as the people’s representatives in the non-general elections that select the Kingdom’s senators, provincial and municipal councils, and city, khan and district councils in accordance with laws adopted in 2008. Commune councils serve as the representatives who vote for the people so that the people can save time and the national budget is not wasted.

If a political party receives the most elected commune council members, it means that they can elect the president of the Senate and a majority of its members from their own party, and they also can become the head of provincial-municipal councils and district-city-Khan councils as well. If the presidency and majorities of the Senate and the National Assembly are held by two different parties, it serves, from a legislative perspective, as a balance of power that manages to prevent the National Assembly from adopting laws freely, and the Senate can spot gaps in the laws and send them back to the National Assembly. It would not be like the cases of Law on Associations and Non-Governmental Organizations (LANGO) and the recent amendments to the Law on Political Parties, both of which were passed easily in the Assembly and Senate despite the national and international communities believing they had troubling political elements.

Furthermore, after the council commune elections, the commune will have a clear structure that’s representative of the people, and can transfer functions and resources from the national level to the tune of about 2.8 percent of the current domestic revenue. The amount of budget will vary according to the size of the population living in each of the 1,646 communes/sangkats, which receive around $20,000 to $30,000 per year.

The budget will be utilised for the salary of commune councils, administrative expenses and for local development in response to the demands of the local people via five-year plans and three-year rolling investment plans.

Commune councils have two main duties. First is to serve as a registrar for such issues as birth, death and marriage certificates and to sign off on the transfers of houses and land ownership, and other public services. The second duty is local development via investment programs in accordance with the people’s needs, such as the construction of infrastructure – local roads, bridges, sewage systems, schools, community kindergartens – and the provision of services like agricultural training, domestic violence prevention and intervention, and health centre management, etc.

Some action implementations requested by the people go above the abilities of the commune councils, but they can refer the proposal to district councils or provincial councils to seek a solution based on the current situation.

And because commune chiefs are both the head of the commune council and the commune’s top executive, they have a more complete and significant role than their counterparts at the district and provincial levels, where the councils and the executive are kept separate.

All of this reflects the significance of commune councils, so all the 12 political parties competing in the commune council election and the medias should together explain and encourage the people who registered their names to go to vote for their favourite local representative in accordance with the democratic system this June 4th.

Voting is far better than letting people continuously complain about the slowness of service provision from the commune council, which has been all too common in the past. But voting is a responsibility too, so don’t get upset if you get exactly what you wish for. As the Khmer saying goes: “Bar phdo reu min phdo tae kom thgno!” In translation: you can pick “Change or no change, but don’t complain!”

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