Sunday’s seminar organized by the Sam Rainsy Party was supposed to be about running a good political campaign, but in a matter of minutes it was all about money.
Then again, that’s probably at the heart of all campaigns.
Fifty provincial officials of the Sam Rainsy Party assembled at the home of party founder Sam Rainsy to learn how to run better political campaigns in next year’s commune elections.
As the trainers droned on, the 49 men and one woman dutifully jotted down reams of good advice: pick qualified candidates, meet filing deadlines, don’t make promises you can’t keep.
Then someone asked trainer Hul Thol how much money the party would provide for each of the 1,615 commune elections, and Hul Thol dropped the bomb—none.
The party doesn’t have much money, he said, and candidates are going to have to raise their own. Party officials estimate each commune campaign will cost about $1,000.
Hul Thol made the announcement during an eight-day training session that is part of the run-up to the country’s first-ever commune elections, scheduled for next February, when voters will elect councils in each of the country’s 1,615 communes.
The Sam Rainsy Party hopes to field 22 candidates in each commune: 11 full-fledged council members and 11 reserve candidates.
So that means full-fledged candidates will need to raise almost $100 apiece to pay for signs, music, loudspeakers—the paraphernalia that goes with running a winning campaign.
When Hul Thol said candidates would have to come up with the cash themselves, party members fell silent until Mao Vanny, a party official from Banteay Meanchey province, leaped to his feet.
“We cannot raise this money,” he said. “Our people cannot afford even $100. Maybe this is how it works in democratic countries, but in Banteay Meanchey, we cannot afford it!”
The room erupted in applause and laughter, as official after official stood to say there is no way they can hope to extract $100 from even their close blood relations.
“Some people are willing to help the Sam Rainsy Party, but when we ask them to pay money—it is impossible!” said one man.
But the trainers didn’t back down. The party must become self-sustaining if it expects to be the reform alternative to the ruling CPP and Funcinpec, they insisted.
Sam Rainsy does not have enough money to fund the elections, said Hul Thol. “You can’t rely on him, or on God. You will have to rely on yourself….If we don’t have money, we have to use our brains.”
And indeed, the trainers offered a number of arguments for the provincial officials to use as they woo candidates to represent the party and voters to vote for them.
“We have to convince the voters that it makes more sense to make political donations than to pay bribes for everything,” Hul Thol said.
A factory worker who pays a bribe to land a job may lose that job a month later and be out of work, he said—while a political donation puts an official in office for years.
“Tell [voters], ‘If we win, we can bring you hospitals and schools,’” he said—and honest officials who will do their jobs without being bribed.
Loeung Vuthy, who expects to run for commune council in Kdol Dountiev commune, Battambang province, said he will do his best to raise the money.
But, he said, “We are so worried about this. We are not sure we can do it, but we will tell our friends.”