Pich Pov, 37, was pleasantly surprised last Sunday when local CPP officials showed up on her doorstep in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district bearing gifts: two sarongs and 10,000 riel.
Pich Pov said she isn’t registered with any political party and hasn’t decided who she will vote for come the July 27 national election. By accepting the ruling party’s presents, Pich Pov said she feels an attachment to the CPP but doesn’t feel compelled to return the favor with her vote.
“It’s good because they give the gifts and say you can vote for whomever you want,” she said Wednesday afternoon, taking a break from playing cards in her Srah Chak commune home.
Nevertheless, she added, “Because they give me gifts, I consider myself a CPP member.”
Prak Sambath, 45-year-old mother of four, who also lives in Srah Chak, said she had received small gifts from the CPP in the past, but the gifts had increased this election year.
“Before, I got 5,000 riel. This time, I got 10,000 riel,” she said, adding this was equivalent to what she makes in a day as a porridge vendor. A CPP voter in the past, Prak Sambath said she will likely be one again come July, a choice she has based on the fact that the CPP is the wealthiest party and that local CPP officials have been in office for a long time.
“Being a servant for a rich family is better than being a servant for a poor family,” she said of loyalty to the CPP. “I don’t know who else to vote for.”
Prak Sambath said that she doesn’t think gift-giving ahead of polling day sways voters.
“It will not affect the election result, because you can vote for whomever you want and no one will know,” she said.
Srah Chak’s CPP commune chief Chhay Thirith said the recent gifts of sarongs and cash was regular ruling-party business.
“It is normal that we visit our supporters,” he said, estimating that about 75 percent of Srah Chak’s residents are CPP loyalists.
“We care for our supporters. We are better parents” than other parties are, he said.
The longstanding and widespread practice of giving gifts at election time is on the rise, and though the practice is not illegal, it prevents elections from being truly democratic, said Koul Panha, executive director at the election-monitoring NGO Committee for Free and Fair Elections.
The giving of gifts is only prohibited during the election campaign period, which doesn’t begin until June 26, one month before voters cast their ballots.
“It is not a violation of election law until the campaign starts, but it is a violation of moral conduct for a fair election,” Koul Panha said.
According to a Comfrel report on the pre-election climate released last week, there has been a marked increase in gift-giving compared with the months leading up to the 2003 elections. Though, Koul Panha admitted Tuesday, Comfrel does not have any concrete data on gift-giving from 2003.
“We have observed that it has increased a lot,” he said, adding that all parties engage in the practice, but that the “CPP gives the most gifts.”
SRP Deputy Secretary-General Mu Sochua said Wednesday that the SRP has always given out packets of 15 vitamins per household when they go door to door, whether it is election time or not.
She said her party has maintained the practice in response to the health needs of the people, and they always disseminate health messages along with the vitamins.
“Health care is not free. It is a big problem,” she said, adding that the well-being of villagers is of more concern than whether or not the free vitamins translate into votes.
Sarongs and cash, however, are a “blatant gift to buy votes,” Mu Sochua said of the CPP’s range of presents.
Phnom Penh Municipal Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong, a CPP member, said Wednesday that his party only gave gifts within the party.
“The gifts were given among the party families,” he said.
“It was not for the general public, but for the internal affairs of the party,” he said, adding that the gifts are paid for by the party and do not impinge on municipal or commune resources.