Tep Born, seated crossed-legged in a krama, scanned the pot-holed street in front of his home and rattled off a list of improvements his commune could use: new pavements and better sewers that don’t back up during heavy rains.
Increased security and safer roads were also a necessity, said 60-year-old Tep Born, who works as a guard at a private Phnom Penh university and refuses to drive on city streets after 8 pm for fear of robbers and drunk motorists.
Though the April 1 commune elections are nearing, Tep Born said he doesn’t point such things out to local authorities because they already know all about them.
“I don’t understand why the local authorities cannot solve all these problems,” he said on a recent morning, adding that authorities in Daun Penh district’s Chey Chumneah commune have not followed through on promises made following the first commune elections in 2002.
As Tep Born remembers it, commune officials were more accountable to the people during the days of then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk’s Sangkum Reastr Niyum, when they didn’t come from competing political parties.
Overall he says that the strength of local governance has faded under the blanket of commune-level party politics.
“The [commune] election now is according to the party…. My idea is to have independent candidates,” Tep Born said.
Most residents of the capital interviewed last week said they needed better sewers, increased security and more order on the city’s chaotic roads. Some also said they are largely satisfied with progress in the communes.
Kong Huy, 52, and her husband Ngov Kim Nguon, 57, said Chey Chumneah commune has had the same CPP chief since they moved to the capital in 1990. The couple, who operate two shops on Street 19, say their living situation is good.
“The CPP has made life better since Pol Pot’s time,” Ngov Kim Nguon said.
The road in front of his house has improved in recent years, and he runs a successful business selling pharmaceuticals. But independent candidates would be better able to serve the commune, he added, because “nobody can influence [them].”
One 40-year-old vendor, who gave her name as Mary and who runs an informal betting shop in Prampi Makara district’s Veal Vong commune, wouldn’t say who she plans to vote for.
“I choose anyone who has taken care of the people,” she said, adding that she disagreed that candidates should be independent.
“We have many candidates with ability, so I vote for the party that I like,” she said.
But several residents said they might get more from commune authorities if their primary loyalties were to commune residents, rather than their parties.
Local authorities will serve the community better if they are independent, said Thoem Mom, 50, a snack vendor living in Chamkar Mon district’s Boeng Keng Kang I commune. She added that corruption is a major problem in the government but would not say who she is planning to vote for come Sunday.
“I want a good commune chief with no corruption,” she said.
Siv Vaing Ny, 43, said that steep school fees have forced her to pull her children out of class in Tuol Kok district, and said the road by her house is badly in need of repair.
Commune candidates made promises before the last election but never followed through, she said, adding that she will not decide who she is voting for Sunday until she gets to the polling booth.
While the SRP won the most National Assembly seats for Phnom Penh in the 2003 national elections, only six of the capital’s 76 communes went to SRP chiefs in 2002. CPP chiefs preside over the remaining 70, and CPP commune officials hold 114 more seats in Phnom Penh communes than the SRP. Funcinpec won 66 positions in Phnom Penh as commune councilors in 2002 but has no commune chiefs.
Why Phnom Penh residents want one party heading the Assembly and another running their communes may be a simple matter of incumbency, said Kek Galabru, chair of the board of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia and founder of local rights group Licadho.
The CPP has long dominated the communes, and when it comes to local government, voters may be less willing to risk change than they are at the national level, election monitors said.
Mar Sophal, monitoring coordinator with the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said voters in 2002 may have been afraid of challenging the status quo. In the first commune election, ballots were counted at the polling stations and the public did not necessarily feel that the secrecy of their vote was protected, he said.
“ national election results can show more accurately the voters’ will,” he said, adding that voters are now more educated about the secrecy of their votes.
SRP Secretary-General Mu Sochua said the SRP is in favor of independent commune candidates, but that the law currently does not allow for them.
The SRP, which pledges to eliminate corruption, create affordable housing and develop the capital sustainably, will fare better in Phnom Penh this election because they are fielding stronger candidates than in 2002, she predicted.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said the CPP has improved the communes of Phnom Penh “step by step.”
“We have done it for a long time, and we still continue,” he said, adding that CPP commune candidates elected on Sunday will improve roads, infrastructure, sanitation and security.
“We will make people on the outskirts of Phnom Penh do agriculture with canals, and they can plant vegetables to sell in Phnom Penh town,” Cheam Yeap added.
Keo Sokha, 57, a motorbike taxi driver who lives in Daun Penh district’s Phsar Kandal 1 commune, said that he will be voting for the Norodom Ranariddh Party.
“I want [Prince Norodom Ranariddh] to have power in the government because members of the royal family are always generous and peaceful,” he said, adding that his commune is “disorderly” and needs to return to tradition.
Sieng Thai Sreng, 18, who lives in Chamkar Mon district’s Olympic commune, said he plans to vote for the SRP.
The high school student believes that SRP candidates will keep market sellers from paying high taxes and advocate higher wages for teachers.
“This is the first time I have a right to choose my leader. I am anxious to vote,” he said.