Pledging to improve access to education, help orphans and the elderly, and stamp out corruption, the Rice Party’s platform was barely distinguishable from many of the other 19 small parties that ran in the election.
But in its first national election, the party finished fourth or fifth in all four provinces where it appeared on the ballot. According to preliminary results in Kompong Cham province, the Rice Party won more than 4 percent of the votes cast and missed winning a seat by fewer than 3,000 votes in the country’s most populous province.
Kompong Cham has 18 seats. Under the electoral formula, the Rice Party would have won the 20th with the votes it gained.
Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development who has advocated the role of small parties in strengthening Cambodian democracy, was shocked by the result. “Why are they doing so well? Who are they? What are they doing?” she wondered Thursday.
Before the election she had seen promise in the Khmer Democratic Party, the Indra Buddra City Party and a few others, but she could only speculate that the Rice Party had benefited from focusing its resources on four provinces.
Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, had another idea. The party, he said Thursday, benefited from appearing on the ballot next to the CPP. “Some illiterate people marked the ballot wrong,” he said.
In Kompong Cham, the Cambodian Development Party and Khmer Democratic Party, which appeared next to the other two major parties, won 1.84 and 2.16 percent of the vote respectively, while other small parties barely registered, Koul Panha said.
Rice Party President Nhoung Seap gave himself more credit. “We campaigned by walking through the villages and meeting with villagers face to face,” he said. “We approached the people and offered our friendship so they would believe in us.”
“We spent a little money on the campaign because we did not have much money,” he said. “Compared with other political parties, we were successful.”
He dismissed the idea that results were a blunder. “This could not be because there is a wide space between the columns [on the ballot],” he said. “The checks come from the voters who like my party.”
Despite their differences, Koul Panha and Nhoung Seap agree on the unfairness of the formula for translating votes into seats in the National Assembly. In the formula, percentages of votes are multiplied by the available seats. After calculating the base number, the remainders are recalculated as highest average, a figure both men believe favors the larger parties.
“Small parties can never expect to get remainder votes,” Koul Panha said.
He favored the Untac voting system used in the 1993 election in which remainder votes were distributed as seats rather than recalculated.
Acknowledging the powerlessness of small parties, Nhoung Seap said it was more important to improve his party than fight the system.
“It is unfair and fraudulent, but it is quite difficult to protest. I don’t think we could win,” he said.