Hun Saran attended a 30-minute meeting with government and CPP officials on Thursday at a riverside seafood restaurant in the capital’s Chamkar Mon district. She left with 50,000 riel, or about $12.50, and instructions to vote for the ruling party.
“They told us to vote for the CPP, and then they will solve all our problems,” said Ms. Saran, 64, a resident of the White Building who, along with others, is locked in negotiations with the Land Management Ministry over compensation for her home.
Joined by several hundred other people from around the district, Ms. Saran listened as the party officials promised to solve their problems and continue to provide peace and stability—in exchange for their votes in next month’s commune elections.
Ms. Saran left the meeting with her cash, but with no new goodwill toward the ruling party.
“It didn’t change anything,” she said, declining to say which party she supported, but pointing out that her sister was an opposition commune chief. “I didn’t change my mind.”
Officials who attended the meeting were less forthcoming. Tonle Bassac commune chief Khat Narith declined to comment on what was discussed.
“It’s just a meeting with the party’s members, so there’s nothing to disclose publicly,” he said. However, it was unclear whether attendees were in fact all CPP members.
The practice of giving small amounts of food, clothing or cash in the lead-up to elections is a widespread and fundamental part of the pre-election season, particularly for the ruling CPP. But recent research has questioned its effectiveness, and the opposition has long claimed the practice amounts to vote-buying.
According to Hang Puthea, spokesman for the National Election Committee (NEC), the meetings are legal provided they occur before the campaign period—which begins on May 20, two weeks before the June 4 commune elections.
“If they give donations to people in order to strengthen their political parties, the NEC has no right to involve itself in the internal affairs of the parties,” he said.
“Vote buying and selling is illegal,” he said, though the NEC would only investigate allegations if they occurred during the campaign period because meetings prior to May 20 were outside the NEC’s jurisdiction, he added.
Party meetings are common occurrences around the country. Across town, in Tuol Kok district, a similar meeting was held two weeks ago.
The 60 or so attendees each left the meeting with packages of sugar, milk and a krama.
One woman who went, a 60-year-old shopkeeper who declined to be identified because she was “afraid the authorities…would come make big problems for us,” said that government officials attended the meeting, but it was the CPP representatives who distributed the gifts.
The meeting didn’t change her mind about politics, she said, declining to elaborate. District officials from Tuol Kok could not be reached for comment.
The ruling and opposition parties disagree on whether donations constitute harmless gifts of appreciation or blatant vote-buying.
“I think that granting donations to people is vote-buying,” said CNRP Vice President Mu Sochua. “[The CNRP] never gives donations…and we reject vote-buying, because we want a result that occurs through free and fair elections.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan, however, said the donations were not bribes and accused the opposition of defaming his party.
“I think giving donations is not vote buying, because our party’s members always bring some donations for the people—such as money, kramas and sarongs,” Mr. Eysan said. “We are not buying votes like the CNRP accuses, and I think that they defame us for political gain.”
Recent research suggests gift-giving is not effective in garnering political support.
Swedish academic Astrid Noren-Nilsson interviewed 192 voters after the 2013 national election. Her report, published in December, found that most respondents felt uneasy about political gift-giving and saw it as a blatant bribe or, in some cases, an inadequate replacement for the actual work of governing.
Just five out of the 192 reported voting for the CPP due to appreciation about the gifts.
Effective or not, the party meetings continue to be a staple of election season. Koul Panha, executive director of the NGO Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said that while he did not know if gift-giving was good politics, the practice “hurt fair elections” in the country.
Ms. Sochua, however, was less concerned. She said she people would take the CPP’s gifts and vote for the CNRP in June.
“The ballot papers have a value higher than 20,000 riel or 30,000 riel, a sarong and a krama,” she said.
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren and Laurence Stevens)