Cambodia: Communal Elections


Tony Kevin

An important milestone: Cambodia’s first-ever communal elections will take place on 3 February 2002. Until now, local government councils have been appointed from above. So they have been dominated by the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

Under pressure from foreign donors, parliament passed a law aimed at decentralising power at the local level. Communal elections open up prospects for local democratisation and local power-sharing among political parties. The new law was debated in parliament and committees several times before being passed by consensus, which included the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).

Cambodia has about 1600 communes of varying population sizes. They will have councils ranging in size from five to 11 members. Electors will vote by secret ballot according to party preference. Seats will be filled according to numbers of votes for each party, using each party’s own ranking list in filling seats.

Chances of Funcinpec gaining top positions (Chair, Deputy Chair of Council) are quite good in some communes, and the SRP should get candidates onto councils in some seats. So far, preparations have gone smoothly enough. The government is paying one third of the cost, and donor countries two thirds. This maintains the trend to patriation of election spending (in the last national election, outside donors paid around 90). Veteran election organiser Kassie Neou is again playing a key role as Deputy Head of the National Election Commission (NEC).

There won’t be many foreign observers: maybe 100 or so, compared to nearly 1000 for the 1998 national election. A 50-person observer team from the European Union will be supplemented by a 10-person Japanese team.

Locally based election monitoring organisations - COFFEL, COMPREL and NICLEC - all fully funded from United States political organisations and NGOs - will field some 25,000 Cambodian observers to monitor the 12,500 polling stations. These local observer groups (as in 1998) are basically suspicious of CPP and sceptical about the democracy of the election process. But they are being ‘locked in’ to the process, through taking part with the NEC in a monitoring consultative committee along with donor countries’ embassies, chaired by UNDP officials.

Most complaints have been found to be spurious or exaggerated. So far, in 1600 communes, the UNDP-led committee has found only three well-founded cases of local-level political intimidation of opposition candidates. No doubt there will be more, but the evident outside scrutiny of the process is helping to keep abuses down to a low level.

Predictably, the SRP is claiming there have already been three political murders. Expect to see more such reports in the international media once the election becomes news. But no party has an interest in seriously trying to discredit these elections. They are testing grounds for the far more significant national elections in 2003: they will help parties to assess local voter opinion and to prepare their local strategies for 2003.

International interest will be modest, given that major international current concerns are elsewhere. Interior Minister Sar Kheng (CPP) is regarded by expert expatriate observers as making credible efforts to ensure free and fair elections. Most observers predict outcomes in the range of 10 per cent to 30 per cent seat losses to CPP, from their present 100 per cent control. Such outcomes offer something for all parties. CPP gained only 56 per cent of the votes in the last 1998 national election, so it must expect some loss of power now. CPP also wants to offload some local dead wood.

From the point of view of donors, a 10-30 per cent loss to CPP would be regarded as reasonable, and as reassuring evidence of continuing democratisation in Cambodia. CPP could claim it had run an honest election and surrendered significant elements of power. Both SRP and Funcinpec will be pleased with up to 30 per cent gains, though Rainsy will claim that fraud and intimidation limited his party’s gains whatever the result.

A final question: how well or badly will the new multi-party elected councils work? Will they - as optimists hope - put local interests and local solidarity first, or will they become quickly corrupted by CPP money power or bog down in sterile interparty antagonisms? This will be something very new for Cambodia, whose political culture is based on patron-client hierarchies of reciprocal protection and loyalty (‘khsae’ -the string).

WATCHPOINT: Watch for (unlikely) opposition gains above the 30 per cent mark.


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