Ly Sambo, a farmer from Ratanakkiri province who came to Phnom Penh this week to enjoy the Water Festival, isn’t yet sure whom he will vote for in the February commune elections. He’s not even sure which parties are running or which issues will be key in his commune.
But he does know one thing: He won’t let any pre-election gifts determine his vote.
“I won’t decide by the gift, but by the real nature of the party,” he said. “If they were bad in the past, I won’t vote for them.”
In some ways, Ly Sambo was typical among 30 registered voters from all over the country interviewed during the Water Festival: Undecided, not very well informed, but insistent that he won’t be swayed by gifts.
It appears the political parties have their work cut out for them in the campaign for the country’s first-ever local elections. They must win over a large number of undecided voters, and they may not be able to do so with the simple offer of a krama or food, as some parties—especially the ruling CPP—have tried in the past.
The Water Festival interviews do not constitute a scientific survey. The sampling is small, and the interviews were not private; families and sometimes groups of festivalgoers crowded around to listen in.
Indeed, some voters who claimed to be undecided may have simply been reluctant to speak out. In a survey released earlier this year by the Center for Advanced Study, one-fifth of Cambodians admitted they were afraid to express their political views in their home areas.
A variety of people were interviewed, from a 21-year-old Takeo village vendor who admitted to knowing nothing of politics to a 37-year-old Phnom Penh Ministry of Defense official who offered a detailed critique of National Election Committee decisions.
Voters in February will simply check off their favorite party. Commune council members will be determined by the proportion of votes received by each party, with candidates chosen in numerical order off lists posted in advance by the parties.
For some voters who admitted their minds were already made up, it was the party’s reputation—and not necessarily individual candidates’ ability to lead their communes—that made the difference.
“The CPP saved my life,” said Sok Kuch, 40, a boat racer from Kandal province. “When I lived in the Khmer Rouge time, there was not any time to live life and enjoy boat races.
“I don’t know what qualifications I’d look for in a candidate,”
Sok Kuch added, “but I want to live with the CPP, anyway.”
The image of the CPP as the party that led the country out of war and Khmer Rouge terror rang true with another respondent, Sou Yn, 44, also of Kandal. “I live by Hun Sen’s house, and I survived the Khmer Rouge because of Hun Sen,” he said.
The CPP also received some strong negative comments. Meas Saman, a former soldier who lost his arm in a battle in 1975, said he has never received any help from the government and would therefore vote for the Sam Rainsy Party.
“I’m looking for someone who can help me,” he said. “I would vote for the Sam Rainsy Party, even if they took me to kill.”
Keo Kiriphal, a former refugee from the Thai border now living in Kandal province, said CPP leaders in her commune assumed that all such refugees would not support the party. “The officials are not fair….We are never invited to receive gifts from the CPP,” she said. Nonetheless, she said she was still undecided.
For a supporter of Funcinpec, the King’s reputation was enough. “I wouldn’t vote for anyone besides the Father [King Norodom Sihanouk],” said Chhun Phin, 63, of Kompong Speu, who sold ivory trinkets and traditional medicines from a mat during the festival.
One woman who had decided who she would support said she was voting for a person, not a party.
“I know who I love in my heart, but I can’t speak out,” she said. “I can just say he is a good man, a hard-working man I trust.”
Indeed, undecided voters typically spoke of deciding based on candidates, not parties. “I will vote for a candidate who is loyal to the people, because most are instead out for their personal benefit,” said Chhib Pich of Kompong Cham.
“I will vote for a candidate who will work for the people, not for the party,” said Bun Nith, 45, who came from Kompong Speu with her three children to watch the festival.
The fact that voters must vote for parties, not candidates, was enough to discourage the best-educated respondent from voting at all.
“The commune candidates will not be selected by the people, but by the parties,” said the Ministry of Defense official, who possesses a law degree. He declined to give his name. “Some candidates will be selected of whom the people don’t know their background or leadership capacity. They have only been selected by the amount of work they’ve done for the party.”
Among the undecided, knowledge of the political system and its role often seemed lacking. Nearly half of respondents were not clearly aware of which parties were running in their communes. A few said they would vote for the party or candidate they “loved” but could not be more specific about their criteria.
Most said they would vote for candidates who were not corrupt, or who would improve living conditions in their commune by fixing roads, building new schools, digging wells and canals or making other infrastructure improvements.
Widespread illiteracy and lack of voter education has led some election monitoring groups to worry that voters will be susceptible to vote-buying. But every respondent except for one—the 21-year-old village vendor from Takeo—insisted the offer of a gift would not influence his vote, even if he or she accepted the gift.
“Some candidates may give a krama, or MSG, but it won’t buy our vote,” Bun Nith said. “We want bridges, roads and things for the community. The other things, we can buy at the market.”