Talk of Betrayal as CNRP Loses Council Race in Prey Veng

SITHOR KANDAL DISTRICT, Prey Veng province – Anyone passing through Prey Doeum Thnoeng could be forgiven for pinning the tidy little village for a stronghold of the ruling CPP. Just about every second house along the red dirt road through town sports a bright blue banner with a checkmark next to the ruling party logo. Posters for the opposition CNRP are few and far between.

But the lopsided partisanship is only skin deep.

In 2012’s commune council elections, the two leading opposition parties—which have since merged to form the CNRP—took 34 of the 65 seats in the district to the CPP’s 31.

With the CPP dominating most everywhere else, Sithor Kandal was well placed to become one of the few districts in the country to fall to the opposition in Sunday’s district council elections.

But when the final ballot was counted inside a dim, breezy classroom at the local high school, the CNRP came away with only 31 votes, just shy of the 33 it needed to win a majority of the district council’s 17 seats—and with it the power to guide local development projects.

In its campaign leading up to the vote, the CNRP, emboldened by a strong showing in national elections last year, said some CPP commune councilors were sure to cast their ballots for the opposition.

But as it turned out in Sithor Kandal on Sunday, it was opposition commune councilors that switched sides in the secret ballot, with local CNRP faithful convinced that some of their members had been paid off.

“We have 34 councilors to vote, but only 31 councilors voted for the party, so three were bought out,” said Nhan Chan Thoeung, a CNRP commune councilor.

At the house of a local party activist, where CNRP voters and candidates had gathered to hear the results, tensions were high. There were accusations of betrayal, calls for a witch hunt, talk of a secret code the party had used on the ballots that would somehow help them root out the turncoats.

“We were expecting to get nine seats so we could have the presidency [of the district council], but we will get only eight,” Mr. Chan Thoeung said. “I’m disappointed and frustrated. Now the CPP can do everything automatically.”

Kin Kun, who sits on the CNRP’s provincial working group, worried the defections would cost the party something just as valuable—their supporters’ trust.

“The people will feel angry… because they were elected by the people to be their commune councilors, but they betrayed them,” he said. “What they did will prove to the next generation that they are dishonest.”

One CNRP commune councilor, Nong Noy, said the CPP had tried to buy his vote—twice.

“The CPP tried to negotiate with me and offered me $2,000 to vote for them,” Mr. Noy said.

It would have been a handsome sum for the rice farmer, who spends most of his days toiling away in the paddy fields that stretch out from the village in every direction. But Mr. Noy said he had no trouble turning the offer down.

“I could not betray my conscience,” he said. “If I sold myself for $2,000, 500 people would lose their voice, because 500 voted for me. My wife said even if they offer me $10,000, I should not take it. But even if they offered me $20,000, I would never betray them.”

As for the CPP, their local commune councilors were mum. After casting their ballots in quick secession as soon as the poll opened at 7 a.m., they all declined to speak with reporters and headed back to party headquarters, right next door to the school, as it happened, in a much nicer building.

At the headquarters, Kuong Sam Ath, a member of the CPP’s provincial working group, dismissed the opposition’s claims that votes were bought, suggesting the CNRP councilors were merely disenchanted with their own party.

“I don’t know anything about that. Sometimes they [opposition councilors] are not satisfied with their own leaders,” he said.

And as for the CPP’s narrow win in the district, Mr. Sam Ath said “we just feel happy,” and walked off.

For all the political drama, though, few outside the party ranks seemed to care.

The councils help decide how thousands of dollars worth of development projects get spent in each district every year. But to the residents of Sithor Kandal, their district council hovers aimlessly somewhere between the real work of the commune chief and district governor, out of sight and out of mind.

Almost no one in the district knew the election was even happening Sunday, and they could not care less who won.

“I don’t know what they do,” said Srouy Sophon, who runs a small stall selling everything from bananas to shampoo across from the school where the ballots were being cast.

“I’ve never seen them do anything. They just do their thing, and I sell my stuff,” she said. “Everything will be the same no matter who comes [to office]. When there was a CPP commune chief, people complained. But when a CNRP commune chief came, everything was the same.”

In the village down the road, interest in the election was about the same.

Oak Ul cast her ballot for the CPP in last year’s national elections, and that was all she knew, or cared to know, about voting.

“We don’t know who the district councilors are,” she said. “We just try to make a living, help our families and raise our children. None of them can make my life any different. None of them come to ask about our situation, about the problems the people face.”

The CNRP says that would change if they had a chance to run the district council. In Sithor Kandal, they’ll have to wait at least another five years for a chance to prove it.

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