Women’s rights activists have long decried the dearth of female representation on Cambodia’s political scene. But now many women who had been hoping to win office at Sunday’s commune elections say they have been deliberately pushed down their party’s ballot lists to make space for male candidates.
On Sunday, voters will cast ballots for the party they want to represent them in their communes for the next five years, with parties submitting lists of candidates who will take office on the local councils according to how many seats each wins.
The higher a candidate is on a party’s list, the higher the chance they have of being elected – and some women say they have ended up near the bottom of the lists, despite winning primary-style internal party ballots to decide the list order.
“Originally, I was voted to be ranked first – no one beat me,” Thong Someurn, a candidate for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in Koki commune in Kandal province’s Kien Svay district, said in an interview this week. “Now, in the end, I am only fourth on the list. I am of course upset, because the people voted for me.”
“I do not take things personally, as long as my party wins,” the commune council hopeful added. “But I am also very upset. Everyone discriminates against women candidates – and it happens on the national level, and in whatever party.”
Koki Commune Chief Kong Chheng, who has been the CPP’s top-listed candidate since commune elections were introduced in 2002, said that the ruling party had moved Someurn down the list because it did not believe she was as electable.
“A female candidate cannot run for commune chief when the people do not love or support her,” he explained, adding that he believed his record as chief made him the better top candidate.
“We do well, so people know and support us.” “Men and women have equal rights . . . [but] the one who is doing well attracts more supporters and will be a candidate,” Chheng explained.
Further north in Tbong Khmum province, Chou Ry, a commune council candidate for the Cambodia National Rescue Party, said earlier this month that she had secured the fourth position on opposition party’s ballot – only to later be pushed down to the fifth to make place for a man with higher-up connections.
“I disagree with it, but what to do about it? The lawmakers told me to be quiet,” Juri said, explaining that the sudden narrowing of her chances of being elected to her council on Sunday was still stinging.
“It is really affecting me mentally,” she said. “I am sure I’m being discriminated against because I’m a woman.”
One female candidate in Kampong Chhnang province’s Rolea Ba’ier commune said she was left off the CPP’s list completely after winning its primary-style ballot.
“Among the more than 120 votes [cast], I got 120 votes, and they showed the votes transparently,” said Meas Sereyleak, a local activist for the ruling party, who said that the party then ran a second-round of elections in which she didn’t do as well.
“They kept the result secret and private, just saying that I won no votes. It is obvious that I am discriminated against because I’m a woman,” Sereyleak said. “The villagers are very upset, because they wanted me to be the candidate.”
A commune representative for the CPP could not be reached for comment, but Som Voeun, the Rolea Ba’ier CPP district governor, declined to comment.
CPP spokesman Sous Yara denied that any ruling party candidates were forced down lists after winning internal ballots. “They were pushed down on the list?” the spokesman asked. “That’s not true,” he said. “There’s no such a case.”
However, Thida Khus, director of local women’s rights group Silaka, said it was not new for men in politics to strongarm women out of positions in Cambodia.
“The men who are first on the list refuse to leave,” Khus said, attributing the dearth of women in politics in Cambodia to the widespread practice. “A lot of women have been kicked out or kicked down on the ballot list.”
Another official from Silaka, Seng Reasey, explained that some women hoping to win political office accepted worse positions when prompted by men in their party so as not to rock the party’s boat during a politically precarious time.
“Men tell them, ‘You’re just a newcomer, and you’re just a woman. If you stay here, the men will step back’. So the women are in a dilemma,” Reasey said. The women still wanted to support their party, so they accepted the lower position.
It Sakhorn, a CNRP candidate in Rong Damrei commune in Prey Veng province, said she had in fact asked that she be switched from the first to the second rank on the opposition’s list after being convinced she was not a suitable flag-bearer for the party in the commune elections “because of my limited knowledge and resources”.
“Now the first candidate is a man,” Sakhorn said. “I regret this.”
The CNRP’s district chief, Ngin Chhorn, said the change in order was appropriate because Sakhorn’s assessment of her strength as a candidate had been correct, with the male candidate who replaced her having “negotiated” the change with her.
“It’s their own decision. The lady’s education was lower than the man’s,” he said.
Gender and Development for Cambodia Executive Director Ros Sopheap said a lack of support from party leaders for women looking to run for office was proving a decisive factor in limiting their numbers, saying both parties could do more.
“Women told us, ‘I don’t have any encouragement from my boss. If I had, I would have stayed on’,” Sopheap said. “The men immediately say ‘yes, move down’.”
Further complicating things, said Prak Chanposda, an advocacy officer at GADC, were unsupportive husbands who did not want their wives involved in politics. As women are often the primary caregivers in their households, many of their spouses would tell them their families lacked time and financial resources for them to run for office.
Chanposda gave the example of another Prey Veng candidate. “She was number two,” she said. “She said she needed more time to work, but her husband wasn’t happy that she’d work at night time and lunch time, so he threatened to leave her.
“So she had to choose between husband and work. And she chose her husband.”
This was made even more difficult, Chanposda said, by some parties’ demands for money to run for commune office.
The CNRP had asked its candidates to make personal contributions to campaign costs, with those at the top of the ballot expected to pay as much as as $500. “[The women] are happy to pay, but . . . their husbands always ask, ‘Why do you need to pay that money? Why do you need to work in this job?’” she said.
CNRP Vice President Mu Sochua, who served as minister for women’s affairs until 2004, admitted that there had been many complaints submitted to the CNRP’s women’s movement about female candidates being moved down lists.
“We have dealt with as many cases as possible but we could not deal with all of them,” Sochua said, noting the CNRP has been “very decentralised” in its approach to the elections, allowing each commune a lot of power over its list.
“We wanted the local level to learn the democratic processes,” she said. “It was not a totally smooth process,” she said. “I’m also not happy with this. Women without connections don’t have their voices heard.”