Like many parts of the Kingdom, Sala Kamroeuk commune, just outside of Siem Reap city, has been governed with consistency by one commune chief from the ruling party for the past 15 years.
When that commune chief – three-time incumbent Sam Lan, now 60 – took office, Chen Sokngeng was just 11 years old, the son of a humble farming family.
Now running to capture Lan’s seat at the age of 26, Sokngeng is officially the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s youngest candidate for office in the upcoming June 4 commune elections, and is banking on an infusion of youth turning the tide in a race that has all the makings of a David-versus-Goliath contest.
Sokngeng joined the CNRP at the age of 21, setting aside a career as a nurse, and went on to work for the party’s national election campaign in 2013 before deciding to entire the political arena himself.
He is now up against the perception that he is inexperienced and underqualified for the job he is looking to take away from the ruling CPP.
But instead of shying away from discussing his age, Sokngeng is confident he can use it as an advantage rather than a stumbling block – as a tool to appeal to the commune’s younger voters.
“The youth are wishing for change. The public services for citizens are not transparent. So, the youth don’t want to see this. And the youth want me to bring new ideas, new development,” he said.
There may be something to Sokngeng’s optimism. With more than 60 percent of the country’s population aged between 18 and 30, younger candidates like Sokngeng have the potential to resonate more than either party’s old guard.
Indeed, one of the factors contributing to the opposition’s surprise gains in the 2013 national elections, in which they won 55 of 123 parliamentary seats, was its use of social media to engage and mobilise support among young people. Social media darlings like Thy Sovantha – who has since split with the party – used their Facebook pages as political forums to push the opposition, which in turn benefited from the reflected youthful glow.
Cham Bunthet, a political commentator, said the CNRP had the upper hand in mobilising the youth vote in 2013, and predicted this momentum to continue into the elections on June 4.
However, he said the CPP had seemed to learn from the CNRP’s strategy – it has aggressively bolstered its own social media presence since 2013 – and is making its own efforts to attract young voters. “Yes, the CNRP may have it now, but there are no guarantees in 2018 or even in 2022,” he said.
In the scorching heat, Sokngeng sat behind the wheel of a black SUV yesterday, with a party colleague shouting party slogans and policies from the sunroof.
Sokngeng tells the commune residents not to dismiss him because of his age and inexperience, but to focus instead on his platform to provide transparent public services free from graft.
“People in this commune said they want youth to lead the commune. They said the age is not the problem, what’s important is political will,” he said.
Sitting near a bridge watching the rally pass by, Uy Sopha, a motodop, said he was unaware of the new candidate’s credentials but knows that the commune was looking to move away from the CPP. “You cannot eat sour soup all the time. You will want to change,” he said.
As the CNRP rally meandered through the town’s streets, Sam Lan sat behind his desk at the commune office shuffling through documents requiring his signature. The office sits in the same compound as the Cambodian People Party’s local headquarters, a reminder of how little separation there is between the local government and the party.
With the demeanour of a battle-tested statesman, the 60-year-old commune chief is unfazed by the CNRP’s young pick. The CPP has won at least seven commune council seats out of 11 in each of the last three local elections, and Lan seemed assured of a repeat performance.
He has proactively made his young opponent’s age a campaign issue, telling voters he won’t be able to handle the rigours of local administration.
“At 26 he is younger than my son. A person of 26 cannot even manage a family, so how can he lead a whole community?” he asked.
While harping on Sokngeng’s age is an easy hit for the stalwart, he said the commune’s residents were looking for experience, pointing to his track record of supporting the commune’s hospitality industry.
“We have provided a safe commune for them,” he said.
Sokngeng brushed aside Lan’s comments about his age and pointed to recently elected French President Emmanuel Macron, who at 39 is the country’s youngest president. If a European country could elect a young leader, he asked, why can’t Sal Kamroeuk put him in the commune hall?
Back at the CNRP rally, local resident Bopha was buying vegetables from a vendor as the cavalcade of motos and SUVs with blaring loudspeakers passed by.
“We cannot look at young or old now because the youth has a lot of knowledge. We may want to have a new commune chief but if he is not good we will change again,” she said.
Despite the symbolism of a young candidate calling for change against an establishment incumbent, Sokngeng only wanted to focus on the needs of the commune – an issue he says the CPP has long ignored.
“We do not want to hear ‘you have all this – what more do you want?’” he said, referring to an oft-used CPP comeback to citizen requests. “We want development for all people, equally.”