kompong bay district, Kampot province – Even their own party leaders worried that it couldn’t be done, but on Saturday commune council candidates held a debate, and an effective one at that.
Four men running for the Kompong Bay commune council stood on a stage in the sun outside Wat Pichey Odung and told the voters what they would do if elected.
They fielded questions from the audience, the moderator, and each other; they spoke with spirit and humor; and when it was over, the voters in the audience felt they had learned something.
“This was useful, to have all of these people answer questions,” said Sun Hak, 34, a construction worker. “I think it changed some people’s minds.”
“I learned a lot from this debate, about how the election is going and what each party plans,” agreed Rath Sopheak, a 26-year-old housewife. “We want more debates like these. They should be organized for every election.”
Rath Sopheak also said the debates should be televised. It remained unclear Sunday whether Saturday’s debate would be shown, although a videotape was being prepared. Debate organizers are negotiating with private stations to air them after the National Election Committee said they could not be shown on state TV.
Radio Free Asia aired Saturday’s debate on a delayed basis, and will do the same with the five remaining scheduled debates. The next debate is 2 pm today afternoon in Chek commune, Svay Chrum district, Svay Rieng province; it will be broadcast by RFA tonight at 6:30 and again Tuesday morning at 5:30, said RFA senior editor Hout Vuthy.
The debates, sponsored by the Khmer Institute for Democracy and the US-based National Democratic Institute, are intended to teach voters and candidates in the Feb 3 elections how to address local issues directly, rather than simply parroting party platforms dictated from central headquarters.
National party officials had fretted privately to organizers that they feared their local candidates were not educated or sophisticated enough to handle the free-wheeling format of a debate. They were wrong.
The candidates included incumbent commune council chief (now resigned for the duration of the campaign) Norng Nim for the CPP; Bin Rorng for Funcinpec; Torng Vuthdy for the Sam Rainsy Party; and Heng Vuth for the Khmer Democratic Party.
After some initial nervousness, they quickly relaxed and showed four distinct styles: Norng Nim, knowledgeable and affable; Bin Rorng, optimistic and exuberant; Torng Vuthdy, scholarly but passionate; Heng Vuth, concise to the point of terseness.
Moderator Heng Mony Chenda, a non-partisan former Buddhist monk and director of Buddhism for Development, made it clear at the outset that rude behavior would not be tolerated from candidates or the audience.
“This debate is not to create problems between political parties,” but to provide information to voters, he said. Insults, name-calling, or incitements to violence were strictly prohibited.
Everyone behaved courteously for the entire two-hour event. The crowd of approximately 300 included elders and babies, farmers and vendors, a few dogs and the occasional chicken.
Heng Mony Chenda explained that commune voters had met for a morning brainstorming session to come up with the first set of questions for the candidates: what would they do about soaring costs for water and electricity; bad roads; and inadequate schools and sewers?
All four agreed these were indeed serious problems and each vowed to work with the central and provincial government, as well as NGOs and private investors, to rectify them.
Then each candidate was allowed to ask one question of a competitor, and the exchanges became more pointed. The CPP’s Norng Nim asked Torng Vuthdy of the Sam Rainsy Party, “How would you improve the peoples’ standard of living?”
“Eliminate corruption,” shot back Torng Vuthdy. “Attract investment and jobs, cooperate with NGOs to provide better training for people, and seek better markets for their goods.”
Next it was Funcinpec’s Bin Rorng, who asked the KDP’s Heng Vuth how he would develop the commune. “Build roads, solve the sewage problem, control traffic, improve hygiene and security,” Heng Vuth said.
Perhaps the toughest candidate question came from the SRP’s Torng Vuthdy, who asked the incumbent CPP chief why the commune still had so many problems after 20 years of CPP rule. “What have you done to improve things?” he asked.
Plenty, said Norng Nim, ticking off a list of road and sewer improvements, expansion of the local school, a crackdown on gambling and advances in land reform.
Heng Vuth of the KDR asked Funcinpec’s Bin Rorng what he would do to develop the commune. “First, we will decide together what we will do,” he said in a burst of enthusiasm. “If the people need schools and hospitals, we will build them! Because we will have money!”
The next segment of the debate allowed audience members to question candidates directly. Moderator Heng Mony Chenda gently chided the two elderly men who rose to speak first, saying that while their opinions were interesting, they were not really questions.
The third question, from a young man, cut to the bone. “You are all making a lot of promises,” he said. “What happens after you break those promises?”
“That’s a good question, but I intend to keep my promises,” said the KDP’s Heng Vuth. Said the SRP’s Torng Vuthdy: “If I break my promise, the people can vote me out next time.”
Funcinpec’s Bin Rorng said he, too, will keep his word, while the CPP’s Norng Nim said he has already shown he is a man of his word by his accomplishments of the past 20 years.
The next question was just as direct. “Can you eliminate corruption? And how will you do it?” asked another young man.
Said Torng Vuthdy of the SRP: “My party respects the law, and does not favor corrupt people.” Norng Nim of the CPP said: “To eliminate corruption, we must use the law. There will be no corruption, I promise.”
Heng Vuth of the KDP said: “The law doesn’t create corruption, people do.” Funcinpec candidate Bin Rorng said: “I promise you, I oppose corruption absolutely.”
The discussion stayed fairly theoretical until voter Rath Sopheak laid it on the line. “What will you give me if you win?” she asked as the audience chuckled appreciatively.
The answers came thick and fast. From the CPP: a bigger school, a library, better housing and sewage facilities, all done step-by-step in an orderly, fiscally responsible manner.
From Funcinpec: better schools and housing. A sympathetic ear. No corruption. And a budgetary process that works.
From the KDP: A sewer system. “And I can’t say what else we will do. If people come to me with problems, I will raise money to fix them.”
From the SRP: “These are important questions. We will come into the office with nothing, and lead the people. The new commune council will consider all requests and act.”
Voters were reluctant afterwards to say if anyone had won the debate. “I can’t say who was the best. I thought all four answered questions well,” said Sun Hak, the construction worker.
“I thought it fairly presented everyone’s position.”
(Additional reporting by Ham Samnang)