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On the campaign trail, Sokha pushes localised budgets

Opposition leader Kem Sokha speaks at a rally yesterday in Kampong Chhnang provinc
Opposition leader Kem Sokha speaks at a rally yesterday in Kampong Chhnang province. Alex Willemyns

On the campaign trail, Sokha pushes localised budgets

Opposition leader Kem Sokha said in an interview yesterday that his party is aiming to win more than 60 percent of the votes cast at the June 4 commune elections, pointing to his proposal to decentralise development by giving each commune $500,000 a year as a major vote winner.

Sokha has been travelling around the country in an effort to visit every province before voting day, and in Kampong Chhnang province yesterday morning he predicted that his proposal to give each commune $500,000 a year would win votes for the Cambodia National Rescue Party.

“Our plan is that we want to get more than 60 percent,” Sokha said in an interview after a campaign speech in the province’s rural Boribor district. “Our policies have hit the hearts of the people, because who does not want to develop their own communes?”

“This is a policy that the ruling party has never dared [to implement] for a very long time.”

Saying the people elected to their local councils would be better placed to develop their areas than bureaucrats in the capital, Sokha announced the policy at the opening of the campaign period on Saturday.

With more than 1,600 commune councils across the country, the cost of the opposition’s policy would come to about 16 percent of this year’s $5 billion national budget. It would also require the CNRP to overtake the ruling party in the July 2018 national election.

The Cambodian People’s Party won 61.8 percent of the total vote at the 2012 commune election to the opposition’s combined 30.7 percent, and the CPP has dismissed the opposition’s hopes of winning a majority of votes this time around as wishful thinking.

The ruling party, which has long maintained tight control over local-level administration, has never come close to being challenged in the three rounds of commune elections that have been held since the local-level government was democratised in 2002.

The Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party – which combined to form the CNRP in 2012 – won majorities in only 40 communes compared to the CPP’s 1,592 in 2012, leaving most of their elected officials powerless to enact policies.

The turnout in Kampong Chhnang yesterday was subdued, with no more than a thousand supporters rallying in the provincial capital for about an hour to show their support for Sokha, who delivered a speech promising CNRP-run communes would be more accountable.

Many of those who did turn out in Kampong Chhnang town to greet Sokha were themselves candidates for election, and while predictions varied about the CNRP’s chances, none predicted it would win any fewer than half of the province’s 65 communes.

“We hope the wave of support this time takes over the CPP, and that the people have woken up,” said Mok Keam, a 72-year-old who is running for his home commune’s council, adding that he was finding door-knock campaigning easier than before.

“It is different from past mandates. I have seen this from distributing leaflets to people’s houses. They seem happy to vote for the party, and they are unhappy with the current commune chief,” he said. “He develops the commune without consulting with people.”

Others said they believed there were many people who were not prepared to join public campaigning but would nonetheless vote for the CNRP come June 4.

Yet while many may be afraid of the repercussions of identifying themselves as opposition supporters in their home areas, others were abandoning that fear, said Pol Tit Theany, a 46-year-old mathematics teacher at a local state high school who said he asked for the day off.

“There are many threats in Cambodia, particularly for people in public jobs,” Tit Theany said. “They can force us to resign from our work. For me, there has been a little bit of threatening . . . [but] I always participate in all social actions, especially for my party.”

“If you talk about my boss, we are talking about His Excellency Sam Rainsy,” he added, referring to the former leader of the CNRP who was banned from returning to Cambodia by the CPP government last year.

Sokha will continue his tour of the country today by taking his pitch for change and decentralised development to the provinces of Battambang and Pailin after continuing west yesterday from his two stops in Kampong Chhnang and one in Pursat province.

The message there and elsewhere, he said, will highlight what the opposition says are the stakes at play come June 4.

“Commune leaders are very important, and when you select leaders who are brutal, you will suffer,” Sokha told the crowd. “When you select leaders who are corrupt, you will be poor, and live with great difficulty. And when you select leaders who threaten, you will live in fear.

“So, brothers and sisters, vote for leaders you can be satisfied with, and who believe you can live in prosperity and with fraternity and solve your problems.”

This article has been updated for clarity.

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