Survey Shows Need for Voter Education

It’s an almost daily occurrence in developed nations: Thou­sands of average citizens are asked what they think of government, how they feel about upcoming elections or what they think of the state of their country.

But in more developed countries, the poll-takers aren’t attacked by leeches. Or nearly overwhelmed by floodwaters. Or followed by suspicious village chiefs.

A recent survey commissioned by the Asia Foundation suggests that the average Cambodian has much to learn about how elections work, what local government does, or even what democracy means.

The survey—the most comprehensive and scientific conducted in Cambodia, its authors say—indicates that many Cambo­dians have little faith that the ap­proaching commune elections will be free or fair.

The survey of 1,006 people largely reinforces the contention of election observers that education and election monitoring are necessary for a successful election.

“Even with the 1998 elections, a lot of people aren’t aware of the election, or the need to register,” said Kek Galabru, a committee member of the election monitor Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free Fair Elections in Cambodia. “They may know in the cities, but in the remote regions they don’t know.

“The rules are different so we need to explain them well. Many are confused and they don’t vote,” she said. “There is much less (voter) education than in 1998, almost none at all. We haven’t had time yet to do it.”

The Democracy in Cambodia survey, funded with $70,000 from USAid, is scheduled for release in the Khmer language early next month. It was released in English in April.

The survey interviews were conducted in the summer 2000—before election rules were finalized but well after public discussions of upcoming elections had begun. Nonetheless, 40 percent of people said they had not heard of commune elections, and only 29 percent said they had heard anything about the need to register for them. Forty-five percent said they were confident the elections would be free and fair, while 51 percent said they weren’t sure. When informed elections would be held soon, 97 percent said they intended to vote.

The poll also tested Cambodians’ knowledge about commune government. Asked what commune governments do, 26 percent mentioned road-building and 24 percent mentioned solving conflicts. A quarter of potential voters said they had no idea what the government did.

The poll even posed so-called “mood questions” common in the West but never before asked here, according to Hean Sokum, director of the Center for Advanced Study, which conducted the research. Cambodians were generally optimistic: 72 percent thought “things in Cambodia today are going in the right direction.” Forty-four percent said they feel better off than they were two years ago, while 36 percent said they were worse off.

To conduct the survey, 16 researchers fanned out throughout the country for almost two months during last year’s high flood season. One research team flew to Ratanakkiri province to interview 12 people.

With nearly 100 questions in hand, interviewers spoke to people in rice fields, at silk mills and in garment factories. To get to one village, where she was to interview only four people, researcher Lim Sidedine took a car, a boat, an oxcart, and a moto-taxi. She walked through hectares of rice fields before taking another moto-taxi.

Village chiefs, provincial governors and even some villagers were initially suspicious that any poll that discussed politics was really intended to indoctrinate one party’s views, Hean Sokum said.

“Talking about politics was a big problem for the authorities,” he said. “When there was a group around, some villagers wouldn’t say what they believed, or would give an incorrect answer.”

The study was the first to employ a random polling method, as opposed to a sampling method—more scientific but also harder to carry out, Hean Sokum said. He was advised by the Indonesia office of the AC Nielsen company, known in the West for polls gauging the most popular television shows.



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