Throughout the last 20 years, many of the chiefs of Cambodia’s 1,621 communes have been accused of mismanagement and abuses of power.
Complaints range from unfair distribution of flood aid to land grabbing and political intimidation. And since all commune chiefs were selected by the CPP, the ruling party risks losing credibility and popularity at the grass roots level, which could affect the outcome of the country’s first local elections.
To strengthen its power base as it prepares to battle the Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy parties in this February’s commune elections, the CPP is dropping unpopular commune chiefs in favor of new candidates who the party hopes will be better received.
CPP cabinet chief Tep Ngorn said as many as 30 percent of the current commune chiefs will be replaced by new CPP nominees.
“Most commune chiefs have worked for 20 years, so they have shown some faults that make people unhappy,” he said. “They have done enough, and can leave it now for the new faces.
“If it is our party’s strategy to win the heart of voters, we have to get popular candidates. If voters see candidates they like, they will support us.”
One example is in Prey Kabbas district, Takeo province, where CPP officials have for some time been recruiting retired teachers and other well-known educated people to run as candidates. Elsewhere in the country, there have been accusations that the CPP has paid popular opposition party members to switch to CPP or not to run at all.
Tep Ngorn said that his party has already done its preparations for the communal elections. “We are ready for the election because we began working on them a long time ago,” he said.
He noted the party has finished its months-long survey project in which leaflets were distributed in each commune listing up to 18 perspective candidates for commune chief or the new commune councils. The surveys asked voters to pick nine of the candidates. Only CPP candidates were listed on the flyers.
The survey was criticized by the Sam Rainsy Party, which claimed it was illegal under National Election Committee rules. Tep Ngorn said it was only a normal procedure to help the party find out internally about the popularity of each candidate.
Asked if he thinks CPP will win in most of the communes, he said: “It’s hard to tell. Strategically speaking, CPP should win the most. But who knows for sure which party people will vote for? It is like sportsmen playing in a competition.”
Funcinpec deputy general secretary Serey Kosal said that his party has worked on the commune elections for two years and has enough candidates to stand in all 1,621 communes.
Senator Ou Bunlong, who is supervising commune election preparations for the Sam Rainsy Party, said the party is still working on candidate lists. He says candidates are in place for about 1,000 communes, and he hopes the party eventually will have candidates in about 1,400 communes.
He said the communes where the Sam Rainsy Party were most likely to have no candidates were in isolated areas of Mondolkiri, Rattanakkiri and Preah Vihear provinces.
“We have candidates in every province and city, and we also have representatives in every district in the country,” Ou Bunlong said. “But we won’t run in some communes which are difficult to reach and where we are not popular.”
Ou Bunlong said the Sam Rainsy Party has trained 550 election officials at the district level, and it is their job to train party agents at the commune level. He is optimistic the party will make a good showing.
“In [the] 1998 [national election], we had about two months to prepare everything for the election,” he said. “Now, we have enough time. So we can get more support.”
Funcinpec officials agreed that lack of time was a problem in 1998. Serey Kosal noted that more than 100,000 people living along the Thai border did not vote.
While the CPP and Funcinpec have enough election observers to cover all 12,400 polling stations respectively, the Sam Rainsy Party will ask some of its candidates to do their own monitoring. “When we ask the candidate to also be the monitor, it is like they are guarding their own property,” Ou Bunlong said.
“This way, the candidate will be happy. It is not like parliamentary election that people have to protect the votes of one individual. When we allow the candidate to protect their own votes, it will be better.”