Growing Unease Over Direction of the Country, Survey Finds

There was a shift of almost seismic proportions between January and November 2013 as the number of people who believe the country is being steered in the right direction fell sharply, while the number of discontented citizens rose, according to a new report.

Launching its annual Survey of Cambodian Public Opinion in Phnom Penh on Friday, International Republican Institute (IRI) resident country director Jessica Keegan said the significant drop—the lowest since the IRI began the poll in 2006—from 79 percent to 55 percent in terms of those who believed the country was headed in the right direction, indicated a strong desire for change.

The drop was mirrored by a significant rise in the number of people who believe the country is headed the wrong way, from 21 percent in January 2013 to 43 percent by November, a period which overlapped with the outcome of the disputed July election and state forces began violently suppressing dissent.

Of those who believe the country is off course, 30 percent cited corruption, 18 percent nepotism and 16 percent said damage to the environment as the top reasons that change is needed.

Conversely, infrastructure was billed as the overriding example of the country headed the right way, with the construction of roads (72 percent) schools (57 percent) and health clinics (27 percent) given as answers.

But, when asked what factor was most important to voters in deciding which party to vote for—the long-ruling CPP or opposition CNRP—46 percent of respondents said they felt the “country needs a change.” Some 64 percent of voters said they had already decided before January 2013 which party they would support at the polls last July.

“It’s obvious that the moods and attitudes of Cambodian people have shifted in the last nine months,” Ms. Keegan said.

“Cambodians are more discontent about the country’s direction than they were a year ago. In this survey, the mood continues to be positive, but the spread is much narrower. A very slim majority feel that the country is going in the right direction. The data also indicates a strong desire for democratic reforms, from a more representative government to their court system to freedom of speech.

“Talking about how it shifted, it’s obvious there were several significant social and political movements that have occurred in Cambodia since our last survey,” Ms. Keegan added.

“The merger of the opposition parties, the return of the opposition leader, proliferation of social media and sharing information, obviously the highly contested elections—all of these things are significant events that have taken place in Cambodia since our last survey and should not be discounted when looking at this ‘right’ direction and ‘wrong’ direction.”

The survey, which was carried out by the Center for Advanced Studies, took place between October 28 and November 10 across 24 provinces where 2,000 people aged 18 and above were asked to give their opinions on political parties, issues, their voting experiences, the election campaign and Internet usage.

Forty-eight percent of these surveyed had a primary school education, 50 percent were farmers and 48 percent earned between $101 to $300 per month. Most, 24 percent, were between the ages of 30 and 39.

“The ruling CPP was seen as best representing the views of citizens on infrastructure, education, fighting crime and drugs, and protecting the monarchy,” IRI said in a statement.

“Respondents trusted the opposition CNRP, which was created in July 2012, on issues related to freedom, workers’ rights and food prices. On protecting freedom of speech, nearly half the respondents (49 percent) look to the CNRP over the ruling CPP (34 percent).

“On protecting human rights, CNRP holds a significant advantage (51 percent) versus the CPP (35 percent), and, more significantly, on protecting workers’ rights, the CNRP garnered 56 percent of respondents to the CPP’s 32 percent,” the statement added.

On a local level, 83 percent of respondents said they want to be able to vote for their village chiefs, who at present are appointed. A 23-percent desire for a freer, more independent judiciary was also given as an example of how the country could develop into a freer and fairer democracy.

CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann, who attended Friday’s launch of the report, said the ruling CPP should “be worried” on the back of the latest results, which he saw as a guiding point upon which to direct party policy.

“[T]his shows that the CPP has been doing more mistakes than before and reform is needed immediately to try to turn Cambodia to the right direction,” Mr. Sovann said.

“If they still continue to violate human rights, if they continue to do more corruption, continue to create injustice in society, the popularity of the CPP is going down.”

He said it is important to distinguish between what a political party stands for, and what any political party can do—such as improving infrastructure—when it has access to a national budget.

Reached by telephone, National Assembly spokesman Chheang Vun initially declined to comment Friday, because he had not seen the report.

But asked why he thought the poll reflected a change in attitude toward the CPP, he referred to last year’s disputed election.

“The CPP is implementing democracy. If people like the CPP, they vote for the CPP. If people like the CNRP, they vote for the CNRP. It is clearly shown that 300,000-plus [more] people voted for the CPP” than the CNRP, he added.

(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)

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