battambang town, Battambang province – With the nation’s second-largest city surrounded by some of its most inaccessible rural countryside, Battambang province holds a rich mix of Cambodia’s voting population.
In the Feb 3 commune elections, it may well be a “swing” province whose results are an early indicator of how voting may go in the 2003 national elections.
A total of 96 commune chief and councils posts are at stake in the province. The CPP has candidates in all 96 communes. Funcinpec has 95 slates and the Sam Rainsy Party is on the ballot in 86 communes. The Khmer Democratic Party and Vongkot Khemarak Party are each represented in one commune.
There were 303,333 votes cast in the 1998 national election. When the final results were announced, the CPP received 107,825 (36 percent), followed by Funcinpec with 82,653 (27 percent), the Sam Rainsy Party with 64,199 (22 percent) and 26 minor parties with 45,656 (15 percent).
The Cambodian Peoples’ Party brings into this election all the advantages of incumbency, since it currently controls all communal leadership positions. Funcinpec relies heavily on loyalists to the monarchy. The Sam Rainsy Party aims its appeals at the poor. In true campaign style, all three parties are optimistic.
“I think we’ll win 100 percent of the commune chief races,” Battambang CPP Deputy Chief So Sokhon said. “The voters just want good leaders, people with the ability to get involved and serve the people. Someone who can build schools and wells.”
And as the old saying goes, all politics are local, So Sokhon said.
“Voters will look at the living conditions of the candidate, how the candidate has acted in the past, and how he has worked to develop the commune,” he said.
As elsewhere in the country, the Battambang CPP did not simply leave all the commune chiefs in place, knowing that 20 years of often-authoritarian rule means some chiefs are now unpopular. Most remain on the ballot, but lower on the party’s ballot list. As a result, the incumbents may end up serving on the new commune councils, but not in the top job, ruling party officials said.
“We moved some of them down to third [on the ballot], or maybe fifth or sixth, or maybe even tenth,” So Sokhon said.
One reason So Sokhon said he is so optimistic is the polling the party has already done in communes to try to determine who would be their most popular candidate for chief.
“We spoke to the people and the members first, before we appointed candidates. That’s why I think our candidates will win,” he said.
When the 15-day formal campaign period begins Jan 18, So Sokhon said, the candidates will be limited on where they can “make propaganda” to “two or three” locations in the commune. Those locations must be approved by the current commune chief.
The election law seems to have foreseen possible abuses in this procedure.
Any incumbent commune chief or village chief who is running in this election must appoint an interim replacement, who would be responsible for approving campaign locations.
The CPP has appointed all the necessary interim chiefs, So Sokhun said.
Seated in a two-story wooden headquarters beneath portraits of the King and Queen, Battambang province’s Funcinpec Committee Chief Yum Heng predicted his party would win 50 percent of the commune chief’s positions.
“People are asking for infrastructure. Roads, canals, projects that can help them support their lives. Voters are excited, even if they don’t understand 100 percent what decentralization is. Even the commune chiefs had to get some learning from the NGOs to understand,” he said.
Regardless of the outcome of the elections, Yum Heng said, Cambodia will be a different, perhaps more democratic place, after them.
“The commune councils will be like the National Assembly; members will make decisions. No longer can chiefs make decisions by themselves,” he said.
Most Funcinpec candidates are from the military, teachers, police, government officials, commune secretaries or retired lawyers, Yum Heng said.
But there’s no doubt Funcinpec is positioning itself as the party of King Norodom Sihanouk. Funcinpec president Prince Norodom Ranariddh made that clear in a national radio address last Saturday.
It’s a strategy with broad-based appeal, Yum Heng said.
“Especially, the people like the King. I believe they will vote for Funcinpec. It is the King’s party,” he said.
Sam Rainsy Party provincial Chief of Public Communications Chea Saroeun had a blunt answer when asked why he thought his party could win 60 percent of the commune chief positions in Battambang province.
“People hate Communists,” he said, echoing the Sam Rainsy Party line that CPP officials have changed little since they were installed 20 years ago with Vietnamese support after the demise of the Khmer Rouge.
“When people see Sam Rainsy the man, they see he is democratic,” Chea Saroeun said.
One specific campaign issue was a rash of robberies in Mong Russei district east of Battambang town, Chea Saroeun said.
“But every candidate has his own purpose, and his own plan for what they will do after the election,” he said.
Retired teachers and former soldiers, military commanders and village chiefs are included in the party candidate list, according to Chea Saroeun.
“The women who are running do not have as much experience, but they are popular in their villages. That’s why we appoint them to be our candidates,” he said.
Commune candidates are supposed to do their own campaigning and not rely on appearances by national party figures. Chea Saroeun said he expects Sam Rainsy to make one day trip to Battambang province during the campaign. Yum Heng said Funcinpec “might have” some leaders visit.
So Sokhon doesn’t expect any leading CPP figures to visit, and said he is confident they aren’t needed.
“Our candidates can do this by themselves,” he said.