samraong tong district, Kompong Speu province – Gang violence, water, education and a lack of markets topped the agenda in Sambou commune, when candidates for the main four parties took their election campaigns to the podiums to debate in front of 200 villagers.
Under a banner in Khmer that read “Make an informed choice before casting your vote,” three incumbent commune officials and one Funcinpec newcomer answered villagers asking for better security and more public services—villagers who wanted to know: What have you done for us in the past five years?
CPP commune chief In Dum, 59, gestured to a nearby dirt road.
“I have built 7,000 meters of roads, 12 ponds, 47 wells and more than 200 toilets,” he told the crowd at the Friday morning debate.
After the 90-minute session, led by a moderator and sponsored by the US-based National Democratic Institute, In Dum clasped hands with the Funcinpec, Norodom Ranariddh Party and SRP candidates for a photograph in front of four narrow podiums emblazoned with their respective party logos.
Cambodia’s political scene has long been a fractious, divisive affair. The idea of formal debate—and of challenging the ideas of other candidates with your own—is a nascent concept in Cambodian politics, said Jerome Cheung, resident country director at NDI.
“We’re trying to encourage a dialogue [and] interaction between candidates, so that voters can make a comparison,” he said.
The NDI is sponsoring 31 debates in 10 provinces before the campaign period closes on March 30. As of Monday, 10 debates had been held in Kompong Speu, Prey Veng and Kompong Cham provinces.
The NDI moderated similar debates ahead of the July 2003 national elections, but held only a small “pilot project” of about five debates ahead of the 2002 commune elections, according to Tarikul Ghani, director of programs at NDI.
This year, however, debates in Prey Veng province have drawn record crowds of 800 to 900 people, he said.
The rigid structure of the debates-candidates were limited to one or two minutes of response-was difficult for some of the candidates in Sambou to adjust to.
Funcinpec’s Sun Kosal, 36, who has never served on the commune council, was still expressing his thanks to the audience and organizers when the minute for his opening statement was up. Candidates frequently did not use the full two minutes they were given, and answers to questions were fairly basic.
NRP candidate Sum Sophal told villagers that he has dug ponds and built dams for villagers, though he added that this was “an achievement belonging to all people in the commune.”
Ku Lon, the SRP’s commune candidate, said he would increase the number of health centers in the province, and promised to eradicate corruption if reelected.
Candidates said after the debate that the forum appealed to them. The debate also appealed to villagers, who listened intently as their questions were answered in turn by each candidate. Peals of good-natured laughter rang through the audience when candidates faltered in their answers or did not use up their time.
Candidate performance in the debates varies from commune to commune, but the CPP generally has a “better understanding” of the format, Tarikul Ghani said.
“I think [the CPP] take the debates very seriously…. They understand it’s a good opportunity,” he said.
Cheung said that NRP and Funcinpec candidates have tended to be unprepared for the debates-a reflection, he said, of the “disorganization those parties are going through.”
NRP spokesman Muth Channtha said the NRP cannot be judged on the performance of a few candidates, adding that the newly-formed party did not have enough time to prepare candidates for the debates.
Funcinpec spokesman Nouv Sovathero said he was not aware of the debates.
SRP Secretary-General Mu Sochua said that the SRP has focused on training female candidates in particular, ahead of commune elections and the NDI debates.
The debates are an “extremely important, positive addition” to the democratic process, she said.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said the CPP trains local officials and CPP newcomers about the party’s policies, making them well prepared for debate.
“It’s good-the CPP officials can describe their achievements to the people,” he said.
For NRP’s Sum Sophal, the Sambou debate was a chance for the electorate to make an informed choice come April 1.
“Before you vote for any party, you have to know exactly who you want to vote for,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Kim Chan)