Since June 26, when it became OK for a politician to call his visits to provincial villages campaign stops, some observers say that gift-giving by candidates—seasonal patronage some call vote-buying—has become less evident.
But this does not mean that all voter incentives have disappeared. According to Committee for Free and Fair Elections Director Koul Panha, candidates now simply dole out their favors more discreetly than in previous months.
Before June 26, he said Monday, the distribution of rice and such was a high-profile affair, where candidates often asked election monitors to photograph them. International election monitors expressed shock, he said.
But now, “They do not show publicly. Each party, they monitor each other,” Koul Panha said.
After all, it’s against the rules. According to the National Election Committee’s code of conduct: “Every political party, candidate and its representatives shall avoid giving contribution, gift or incentives either in form of monetary or material by whatever means to an institution, organization or individual during the election campaign up to the polling day in order to gain support or votes from that institution, organization or individual.”
Rice, kramas, monosodium glutamate and a few thousand riel are the most commonly given gifts. Before July 26, CPP activists were seen unloading tins of sardines in Poipet for distribution, and Sam Rainsy Party candidates passed out packets of vitamins bearing the party logo and a few of its policies.
But a few other clever enticements have been reported. And, having its hands on the most resources, the ruling party stands most accused.
Funcinpec Senator Khieu San said Monday that beginning June 29, the CPP has encouraged votes unfairly by sending mechanized tillers into the countryside to plow rice paddies for avowed supporters.
Chan Tong Yves, a CPP member and secretary of state for the Ministry of Agriculture, confirmed the plowing report Tuesday, adding that, “The tillers belong to Prime Minister Hun Sen, not the ministry.”
In fact, the tillers, which are manufactured in country, are emblazoned with the premier’s name. Members of Hun Sen’s thousand-strong bodyguard unit are taking them to Takeo, Kompong Speu, Prey Veng and other provinces to help villagers prepare fields for rainy season rice crops, Chan Tong Yves said.
But he insisted that the work is done not to gain votes, only to help poor people who cannot afford to rent their own plows.
Hing Bun Heang, commander of Hun Sen’s bodyguards, declined to comment on the plowing program on Tuesday.
Khieu San also said that he had recently paid people $1 each to join a Funcinpec march. That money was to cover their transportation and food—“not vote-buying,” he said.
Keo Remy, a former Funcinpec lawmaker now standing as a Sam Rainsy Party candidate, complained Tuesday about the owner of Phsar Chaom Chao on National Road 4 past Phnom Penh International Airport. Keo Remy gave The Cambodia Daily a letter signed by the owner, Bonn Chan Krisna, informing vendors that they would not be charged for a month’s rent and services “to celebrate beforehand the victory of the CPP with Samdech Hun Sen as candidate.”
“If Samdech Hun Sen is still in power [after elections], the market will belong to us forever,” the letter concluded.
Funcinpec spokesman Ok Socheat said Monday he has filed a complaint with the National Election Committee against Minister of the Royal Palace Kong Som Ol, the CPP’s No 1 candidate in Kompong Chhnang province. Ok Socheat charges that Kong Som Ol has distributed gifts bought by King Norodom Sihanouk while telling villagers to show gratitude to the CPP.
NEC spokesman Leng Sochea said Tuesday that the Kratie provincial election committee is still investigating the case. “In my opinion, this is not a direct vote-buying activity,” he added.
As for Hun Sen’s tillers, Leng Sochea said the plowing’s acceptability depends in whose name it is done—Hun Sen, the government, or Hun Sen, candidate. “In the role of government, he can conduct [such] activities,” Leng Sochea said.
Tep Ngorn, CPP cabinet chief and senator, denied all charges of vote-buying and gift-giving. “We don’t care about this because the people have made their decisions already,” he said, adding that money spent on loyalty was sometimes money ill-spent.
Patronage began in the days before democracy, when the people relied on their kings to look after them, when nothing much was expected in return.
Opposition party parliamentarian Son Chhay recalled on Monday seeing meters of fabric fluttering forth from then-Prince Sihanouk’s helicopters or speeding cars during his rule in the 1960s. He said the tradition of gift-giving was then revived by political candidates in 1993.
“I don’t want to call it a ‘culture,’ [but instead] a ‘bad habit,’ that has been imposed by the leaders and poverty,” he said.
Son Chhay conceded that, before the official campaign season, he himself distributed small gifts to people in the provinces, as their hardship is difficult to walk away from. “The government should look after these people but it doesn’t,” he said.
But he said he thought most voters are growing immune to the small handouts. He told of recently being asked for rice by villagers. “I said, ‘The other party will do that, but don’t forget to vote for me.’ They said, ‘We know. We are only teasing you.’”