The bad blood of political partisanship that separated father from son and kept neighbors from each other’s weddings during the 1990s could return if the election of village chiefs is not democratic, villagers said this week.
Divisiveness has faded at the village level, said Daun Penh district resident An Veng, but he fears the conflict may return with the Interior Ministry’s recent directive empowering the mostly CPP-dominated commune councils to choose new village chiefs.
Village chiefs are largely considered a holdover from the communist 1980s, appointed by the government with an unlimited mandate to manage local affairs.
Hopes for popular elections at the village level were quashed earlier this month when the Interior Ministry issued instructions to commune councils to vote internally for new village chiefs.
“Such an election is like [political] appointment,” An Veng said.
“They pick the man who would serve their political party—not the people,” he said, adding that villagers know their neighbors and are better qualified to choose a chief by direct election.
Giving commune councils the power to choose village chief rather than local constituents, the government may stoke dormant partisanship in villages, some villagers said.
“Some families argued during meals—now it is not as bad as in 1993 and 1998,” An Veng said, referring to earlier general elections. New village chiefs may stir up problems again, he added.
Also on Thursday, the US Embassy announced a new $14.4 million program aimed at increasing citizen participation and strengthening the commune councils’ transparency and accountability.
Prey Veng province farmer Houth Sameth said that decentralization through commune councils had failed because councilors are elected from party lists, rather than campaigning as individuals.
He added that village chiefs should be elected directly by villagers to a three-year term rather than an indefinite mandate.
“If they stay long, the roots of their corruption will be strong,” Houth Sameth said.
Committee for Free and Fair Elections Director Koul Panha said that the planned vote by commune councilors for village chiefs is a ruse to create the image of democracy, because the CPP dominates the councils.
Pursat province farmer and land rights activist Kuch Veng said that party-affiliated village chiefs would simply follow orders from above.
“Why can’t villages be free from politics?” he asked.
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