A large majority of Cambodians believe that the country is heading in the right direction, according to polling data released Tuesday by the International Republican Institute.
According to the results of the survey, 77 percent of Cambodians believe their country is headed in the right direction, compared with 20 percent who believe it is headed in the wrong direction. The latest poll represents a significant change in public perception since a 2006 IRI survey, which found that 60 percent of people believed Cambodia was moving in the right direction.
Two thousand people from every province and municipality, except Kep and Mondolkiri, were interviewed for the survey between Jan 27 and Feb 26. IRI, which is funded by the US government, puts the margin of error for the results at 2.8 percent.
When asked why they thought the country was heading in the right direction, most respondents cited the construction of new roads (77 percent) and new schools (63 percent).
The top six reasons given by respondents as to why Cambodia was on the right track were related to infrastructure improvements. By contrast, improved living conditions (11 percent) and an improved business environment (9 percent) barely registered.
Among those who felt Cambodia was headed in the wrong direction, 32 percent cited the price of goods and 30 percent said corruption. Poverty (22 percent), energy costs (20 percent) and the business environment (15 percent) rounded out the top five reasons for the country heading in the wrong direction, according to respondents.
Land grabbing (12 percent) and the environment (9 percent) proved to be of less concern to those polled.
Members of the ruling CPP were quick to claim responsibility for the public’s optimism in the future.
“People love the CPP because we have developed infrastructure and the economy,” CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said.
“They are comparing the dirt roads to the good roads, bridges everywhere,” he added.
Cheam Yeap said the gains in public approval since 2006 were not the result of any changes in government policies, just the implementation of those policies.
SRP Deputy Secretary-General Mu Sochua said her party did not deny that Cambodia is “moving in the right direction in terms of security and economic stability.” However, the simple question of right or wrong direction left out a number of very real concerns that the SRP intends to focus on for the election, Mu Sochua said.
“We are looking at three main areas: employment, inflation and health care,” she said.
Mu Sochua cautioned that the IRI survey data should not be interpreted as a signal of big gains for the CPP at the ballot box. She noted that the IRI survey ahead of the April 2007 commune election gave similar results—71 percent saying the country was headed in the right direction—but the SRP had its best ever showing at the polls.
“There are very specific problems,” she said. “These problems have not been tackled, and we will provide solutions.”
Mu Sochua’s confidence was not shared by some political observers who said the survey results revealed a set of priorities among most voters that the governing CPP, which has the ability to construct roads and schools, is better situated to exploit.
“We are aware of the fact that people pay a lot of attention to the development of infrastructure,” said Kek Galabru, president of local rights group Licadho. “It is not very good news for the opposition, because people pay less attention to violations of human rights, land grabbing…freedom of expression” or other mainstays of opposition parties’ platforms.
“So, in that case, we can expect a big victory for the ruling party,” she said, adding that the fact that the opposition is divided into several parties further hurts its chances.
Chea Vannath, an independent political observer, said the focus among voters on infrastructure improvements is nothing new and reflects just how young democracy is in Cambodia.
“The level of understanding the role of the government towards the people is limited,” Chea Vannath said. But she said people do know that they can now go from place to place in far less time than before.
“Later on…maybe in the next decade to come, the people will become more sophisticated and will become more concerned about governance and transparency and things like that,” she said.
Despite the importance of infrastructure improvements for the voting public, Chea Vannath said she believes the platforms proposed by the political opposition are “viable to stir up public support,” but a lack of presence in the media will make it difficult to get those messages to voters ahead of an election just two months away.
The issue of the media did emerge in IRI’s survey data, with 72 percent of respondents saying they believed state-owned television stations should give equal time to opposition parties and ruling parties.
State media, indeed all media, is frequently cited as showing a heavy CPP bias by the Committee for Free and Fair Elections and many others. Prime Minister Hun Sen recently boasted of having 39 stations to the opposition parties’ one.
Comfrel Director Koul Panha said Tuesday that CPP dominance of the media was likely a major factor in the high number of survey respondents saying the country was moving in the right direction. The IRI survey results, however, suggest that even a significant number of CPP supporters believe opposition viewpoints deserve more airtime.
Survey respondents also said they wanted more freedom to select their provincial governors. Forty-seven percent of people said they wanted to elect their governors directly, dwarfing the 8 percent of respondents who approved of the current method of governors being appointed by the central government.
Government spokesman and Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said by telephone Tuesday that there was in fact a media coverage gap in Cambodia that favored the opposition over the CPP.
Ruling party-affiliated television and radio stations broadcast to only 70 percent of the country, whereas the opposition parties make use of Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, which broadcast throughout the entirety of Southeast Asia, Khieu Kanharith said.
“During the election campaign we will provide political parties with equal airtime” on state-owned stations, he added.
Cheam Yeap defended the current practice of appointing governors saying that even without direct elections, those officials have brought “development at the provincial and municipal level.”