With less than two weeks before nationwide council elections, many people expressed a mix of ignorance and apathy Monday regarding the indirect ballot, which will establish new layers of government and install more than 3,200 new officials at the district, provincial and municipal level.
In interviews around Phnom Penh, many citizens said they were unaware of the election, what it involved or when the vote would take place. Others had only a vague idea about the May 17 poll, and some admitted they did not care to learn more about the process.
“It is not a universal election so I don’t care,” said 40-year-old Song Bunly from his roadside stand on Street 144. Although he recalled seeing a CPP-led procession over the weekend campaigning for the election, he only remembers music coming from their loudspeakers and not political platform speeches.
The owner of a barbershop in the city’s Daun Penh district, Kan Puth said he had heard there would be an election but did not know its date or what it involved.
“I heard about it by a radio campaign,” the 68-year-old said, quickly adding, however, that he was unclear on what positions were up for grabs.
One storeowner, who declined to give her name, was not even sure if she could vote in the election. The answer is that she cannot; only commune councilors will cast ballots to select the new district, provincial and municipal councils.
“Is it a new election?” the storeowner asked. “I didn’t see any campaign about this election. Normally when they have an election they always do a campaign.”
Government officials say they are doing their best to enlighten the public about the new government bodies that will be installed after the May 17 vote, and that the bodies are meant to provide checks and balances from the provincial and municipal level down.
“This election could strengthen democracy in Cambodia,” said Tan Narin, CPP commune chief for Sen Sok district’s Toek Thla commune.
But Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said the public ignorance extends not only to the elections themselves but also to the function of the councils.
That problem can be blamed partly on the novelty of the councils, and on the lack of public involvement in the elections, he said, adding that Comfrel was preparing a booklet for after the election to educate people about the purpose of the soon-to-be-formed councils.
“It’s not clear to them,” he said of the average person. “This council is a little bit distant from them,” he added.
Tep Nytha, secretary-general of the National Election Committee, said the NEC has broadcast announcements on state-owned radio and television stations and believes the public is fully engaged with the process.
“We didn’t survey the public, but I think that there are many people who know and want to know about this election. In a radio program, there were about eight or nine people who called in and asked about this election,” he said.
The May 17 election, which is only open to commune council members and not the general public, will usher in 3,235 new councilors who will serve five-year terms and meet at least 12 times a year, although several critics have questioned the councils’ apparent lack of power and hazy responsibilities.
John Willis, Cambodia country director for the US-based International Republican Institute, said his organization has not delved into the public’s view of the upcoming elections. However, he said people should still have an interest in the outcome.
Many, however, believe the election results are already a given since commune councilors will almost certainly vote for the party they belong to.
“I am from the SRP; I will vote SRP, and someone from the CPP will vote for CPP. The leaders are still the same,” said Russei Keo commune chief Chan Samnang.
“Some people said to me that we are close to voting in the elections, but I told them this election is just for commune councilors.”