The Cambodian People’s Party is resurrecting a socialist election strategy by gathering personal details of voters and showering them with gifts, party officials confirmed this month.
It is hoped the strategy will deliver the party Phnom Penh, which Funcinpec won in 1993.
“Phnom Penh is most important,” said one central committee member, noting the capital is the political, cultural and economic heart of the nation.
Phnom Penh also carries 12 of the 120 National Assembly seats, the second largest number in the country after Kompong Cham province.
But the committee member acknowledged electoral success will be difficult for the CPP in Phnom Penh. He explained that even in 1973, when the US-backed Lon Nol regime staged elections to legitimize its government, the marshal lost the vote in the capital.
“You could call Phnom Penh the center of opposition for every regime,” he said. “The educated and business classes are here.”
One party “chief” is assigned to approximately every 10 residences in the capital, officials said.
The party regularly gives out kramas, clothing, hoes, spades, rice and mosquito nets, and CPP “chiefs” spread the party message and help determine which residents will get gifts, Um Nhanh, the party’s deputy director for Phnom Penh affairs, said.
A party insider said the system yields results.
“One man, or maybe two or three men, control 10 houses,” said the insider. “These small committees will be the eyes and ears of the central committee in that area. It is efficient and effective.
“It’s a real mobilization effort—a classical approach to an electoral campaign from the socialist time. They go house-by-house. Which one supports Funcinpec? Which one CPP? How many adults in the house? What are their jobs? How many children? How many people can vote?”
The party’s organizational network has been in place in Phnom Penh since 1979, according to Um Nhanh. He said he has directed “propaganda” here since the beginning.
“This is the party’s infrastructure,” Um Nhanh said in an interview at his office. “It’s an effective way for the party to work with the people, to monitor the party’s work, to educate party members and to invite others to join the party.”
Another central committee member said that by giving responsibility of small clusters of homes to one “chief,” the party ensures a presence virtually everywhere.
The committee member, a general who asked not to be named, said the primary duty of the chiefs is to make sure residents register to vote and cast their votes for the party.
“This is the internal task of the party nationwide,” he said, noting the message was emphasized at a plenum held early this month for some 700 central committee, provincial and district officials.
A European diplomat said the existing network was set up in 1979 by the Vietnamese Communist Party shortly after the ouster of the Khmer Rouge from Phnom Penh.
“The party was organized by the Vietnamese, who first used mostly Khmer Rouge low-ranking people, people who overnight switched sides,” the diplomat said. “On Jan 6 they were Khmer Rouge and on Jan 7 they switched.”
He continued, “The Marxist-Leninist structure already in place is being revived, which is extremely useful if you want to control. But there is absolutely no ideology, no communism behind it anymore.”
A human rights lawyer criticized the party this week for using the structure not only as a political network but also as an instrument of intimidation. He said “Big Brother” monitoring is regarded as a rights threat in every country.
“It’s one thing to have a political network trying to gather as many people as possible onto your side, but if it is also intimidating and chilling, that crosses the line,” said the lawyer, who asked not to be named.
Um Nhanh said seminars were held last month at the party’s national headquarters in southern Phnom Penh to advise mid-level party members on how to campaign.
The deputy chief of CPP affairs in the capital said it is crucial that residents of Phnom Penh understand that on July 5 and 6 CPP security forces were protecting citizens from a Funcinpec and Khmer Rouge uprising and not acting as aggressors. “If the people don’t understand about the true reason of the fighting, then we will lose votes,” he said.
Um Nhanh said the only reason the party lost the capital in 1993 was because of fraud carried out by supporters of Funcinpec, including the UN. He said he expects a CPP victory in this year’s contest because he expects a free and fair vote.
Party officials said campaigners will give presents but count on reputations and activities of senior party members such as President Chea Sim and Vice President Hun Sen to attract support.
The party also will use its anti-Khmer Rouge roots to appeal to voters. CPP Honorary President Heng Samrin said voters remember Jan 7, 1979, when they were liberated from the Khmer Rouge.
“That was a great achievement and victory for the CPP and the people are grateful,” the former head of state said.
First Deputy Governor of Phnom Penh Chea Sophara, a CPP central committee member, said he hopes the ongoing road construction and street-light installation projects in the capital will attract voters to the party.
The party-chief network extends into the capital’s suburbs and into the countryside.
CPP representatives were canvassing earlier this month in the town of Takhmau, a suburb of Phnom Penh located roughly 12 km east of the city. Residents said party officials asked them if they had CPP membership cards. If they said no, cards were offered.
“There is no point for me to oppose their offer,” said a man in his 20s. “It is better to bow to them. It does not mean I will vote for the CPP. No one will know who I vote for. My grandfather said not to say no to those men.”
An administrative official with the National Police said he doubted the party’s tactics will work. He said most people want a change of leadership, an end to fighting and safer, cleaner streets.
“If you buy the vote, it won’t work,” he said. “The people…will take the money and say they will vote for you, but vote for someone else.”
(Additional reporting by Touch Rotha and Khuy Sokhoeun)