Commune election candidates participated in a spirited and good-natured debate in Phnom Penh Thursday, the sixth and last in a series organized by local and international NGOs.
Some candidates promised the world, and others at times had little confidence that they could do much at all. But the debate seemed to succeed in one stated goal: Forcing candidates to stop parroting national party platforms and start directly addressing day-to-day issues in the commune.
Candidates from Toek Laak I commune, Tuol Kok district, explained how they would fix roads, decrease flooding and handle squatters. They even discussed how to end gambling, snooker and other mischief that have kept teenagers out of school and in trouble. Many of the questions were pre-selected following discussions Thursday morning with commune residents about their concerns.
At the end of the debate, moderator Heng Monychenda suggested the candidates join hands to symbolize their unity as a commune. The candidates complied.
“I didn’t expect all the political parties to cooperate and send candidates…and that the candidates would debate in such a dignified and constructive way,” Khmer Institute for Democracy director Lao Mong Hay told the audience of more than 400 when the debate was over. “I am a Khmer citizen, and I am very proud.”
Sok Sovy, 45, a Toek Laak I resident, said she wasn’t sure who to vote for before the debate. “But this debate made it very clear that I will vote for the Sam Rainsy Party,” she said. “The lady [candidate] is quite smart.”
Commune voter Sao Leang said the debates were “very appropriate” because they could help voters decide whom to support. “But I’m not sure [candidates] will honor their promises,” he said.
CPP candidate and current commune Chief Chheng Khon said his administration had built four roads and would finish at least one more after he was re-elected. He said the commune was replacing its old sewage and drainage lines and had repeatedly cracked down on teenage mischief.
But Sam Rainsy Party candidate Ly Chheng Ky suggested commune funds were being misused, leading to muddy, dusty or flooded roads. “We have enough in the budget [for roads], but not enough transparency, so that the money has not been well spent,” she said.
Ly Chheng Ky also challenged Chheng Khon on whether he would deviate from his party’s line if it was in the interest of commune residents. She pointed out that the CPP-dominated government had effectively blocked televised broadcast of the debates. “Is that democracy?” she asked.
Chheng Khon replied that the broadcasting decision was beyond his control because he was a commune leader, not a national official.
Funcinpec candidate Nhem Nan promised to be open about the commune budget figures and to resign if faced with scandal. In his closing statement he promised to act on nearly every conceivable issue, from helping widows and orphans to fighting HIV and the trafficking of women.