This should be the little guy’s time to shine.
In theory, at least, Cambodia’s first-ever local elections should give Cambodia’s small parties—the ones that would have little chance at gaining a single seat in the National Assembly—an opportunity to put their ideas into action.
In February, Cambodia will make the transition from a country where a single party has dominated all levels of government for more than 20 years to one where, at least in some communes, a few hundred votes can give the representatives of any small party control.
Nonetheless, small parties are barely creating a ripple in this election. And many small-party leaders seem unimpressed with the stakes involved.
The 1998 national elections featured 39 parties, the vast majority of which didn’t have a chance at an Assembly seat. By contrast, only eight parties signed up for the 2002 commune elections. The three major parties are fielding more than 80,000 candidates, including reserves; the little five, only about 1,400.
Small-party leaders say obstruction by partisan local leaders and election officials has prevented them from registering candidates. Election experts say the laws are biased against small or regionally focused parties.
Advocates of decentralization say the commune elections will transfer a lot of power to the local level. Commune leaders can raise their own funds locally, create budgets and can authorize expenditures.
Next year, the 1,621 newly elected commune councils will control at least $6.4 million, including $1.4 million in donor money and $5 million in government revenue, or 1.3 percent of all domestic revenue, a UN adviser to the government on decentralization said. By 2005, donor governments hope the communes will receive at least 5 percent of domestic revenue, the adviser said.
Local elections could give small parties a chance to prove their ability to govern, UN Development Program official Brian McMahon said.
“Small parties will operate at the same levels as large parties, because they’re both dealing with local issues,” he said.
But some small-party leaders see the commune elections as a means to build support in preparation for the general elections of 2003. Typical is the view of Reach-Chan Sovan, secretary general of the Khmer Angkor Party.
“When we win in the communes, our element will be established. We will know who are our men, who is in our force, so we can compete in the (2003) election,” he said.
Op Reit, president of the Khmer Democratic Party, said when his party takes control in communes, “we will be working with the people for one year, so they know us. Then they will vote for us in the general election.”
Liv Ann of the Cambodian Progressive Party admitted he was skeptical about whether commune control can make a difference when the higher levels of government are still controlled by the major parties.
“We are still centralized, so I cannot say it will make a difference. We are not the government, just commune chiefs. We might receive orders from the top to do this or that,” he said.
Small-party leaders cite a variety of reasons why there are fewer small parties running in the upcoming elections. They may have run out of funding, Op Reit said. They may have felt discouraged after not winning any seats in the 1998 elections and so decided not to run this February, Liv Ann said. Other small-party leaders have been co-opted by the big parties, accepting positions or other benefits from them, he said.
Unlike in 1998, no new parties have formed for these elections. The electoral laws may discourage the formation of new parties based on local leaders or interests, said one election expert. For a party to be eligible in the 2002 election, it must obtain 4,000 signatures from “a variety of provinces” and have headquarters in a provincial capital.
Other provisions in the law make it harder for small parties to succeed, the expert said. Parties must field one “reserve” candidate for each council candidate; in a seven-seat commune council a party must field 14 candidates. Small parties may have a difficult time finding that many candidates, the expert said.
The brevity of the 15-day campaign period may put small parties at a disadvantage compared to parties that are already well-known, the expert said.
Unfair treatment by officials provided the toughest obstacles to registering candidates, small-party leaders claim. The Khmer Democratic Party joined the Sam Rainsy Party recently in urging the National Election Commission to reopen the candidate registration process to give its candidates another chance. Four small-party leaders said the three-day registration period last month was too short.
The Sam Rainsy Party claimed “political violence and intimidation” in 120 communes. Op Reit of the Khmer Democratic Party said his representatives were prevented from registering candidates in 87 communes by election officials who delayed the process by questioning their qualifications. Local officials have also torn down party signs or prevented them from being erected, with seven signs torn down in Kandal province, Op Reit claimed.
Khmer Vongkarat president Phann Syna said governors in several provinces refused to sign NEC forms that would allow the parties to register candidates.
“Some provincial governors just threw away my application form,” he said.
Complaints by Phann Syna, Op Reit and the Sam Rainsy Party are awaiting hearings before the NEC. The NEC has yet to find an election official guilty of an election violation, despite “countless” verifiable violations, Eric Kessler of the National Democratic Institute, a US-based democracy-building NGO, said.
NEC representatives say they are considering whether to reopen candidate registration.
Small parties will become a more important part of local elections once their leaders realize they can make a considerable impact at the local level, McMahon said.
“If the system stays in place long enough, people will realize it’s about local issues. People will realize the advantage of having their own people in their own area fixing things up,” McMahon said. Whether big or small, “if the parties don’t deliver, they won‘t get in. So if the small parties can deliver at the local levels, they have an excellent chance at getting elected [nationally]. And they’ll learn that.”
(Additional reporting by Ana Nov)