The Coalition for Free and Fair Elections has had a hard time drawing crowds to its training sessions on the upcoming commune elections, and Sek Sophal, the coalition’s executive director, thinks he has pinpointed the reason—Coffel doesn’t give out presents to its audience.
“People don’t care about our [sessions] because we don’t distribute money like the politicians and government officials,” he said.
With reports of vote-buying increasing in poverty-stricken Cambodia, Sok Sophal and other local election advocates are now calling for better preventative education for voters.
They warn that the rewards handed out by political parties are driving people to forget what is far more valuable: their right to “social justice.”
Such were the topics discussed in a “Strategy for Civic Education and Election” workshop organized last week by three of the country’s leading election groups: the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel), the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free Elections in Cambodia (Nicfec); and Coffel. Thun Saray of Comfrel said many poor or illiterate Cambodians are willing to trade their votes for material gain or because they are mentally and physically intimidated by authorities and local party bosses.
“We must have the courage to tell people they have the democratic right to vote, to do whatever they want regardless of intimidation. People must use their consciences in decision-making,” he said.
“Vote-buying is not fair and just, because it makes people betray their consciences,” he said.
In the wake of this year’s flooding, Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party distributed food, clothing and money in what critics called a blatant attempt to influence voters.
But it wasn’t only the CPP engaging in questionable flood relief efforts. Funcinpec also handed out flood aid, while the opposition Sam Rainsy Party recently bought a $1,700 fishing lot to allow more than 350 families to fish.
The handouts are very popular, although Hun Sen criticized the Sam Rainsy Party fishing deal as “demagoguery.”
Workshop participants said whenever politicians travel into the countryside, they hand out aid and money to the people instead of working for stronger law enforcement, social justice, development and democracy.
“The distribution of aid to hungry people is not a good long-term solution [to reducing poverty]. What people [need] is development, self-sufficiency, democracy and, especially, the right to vote freely without intimidation,” Thun Saray said.
Buying people’s support and even votes in future elections, he said, will be “dangerous to the voters and their community and nation” because office-holders will cheat to get back the money they spent to win office.
“The money politicians spend on vote-buying, they will regain through corruption to serve their family and party. So they would never think of the national and people’s interests, and they would never be afraid of voters,” Thun Saray said.
“We want the rulers to be afraid of citizens because citizens hold the power of the vote,” he said. “Elections are not just formalities, but powerful tools to decide the fate of leaders.”
The best way for voters to retain their power and limit that of their leaders, democracy advocates suggest, is to teach people what their rights are.
With communal elections tentatively scheduled for late next year, Comfrel, Coffel and Nicfec have begun offering training courses for election activists as well as average citizens.
But it’s hard to compete with the gift-giving politicians, organizers say. NGOs also fear trouble with assembling classes to study the commune elections because sitting commune chiefs, who face losing power in the elections, may not cooperate.
“Usually, the commune chief cooperates with our program to call any meeting. [But] it can be a bit difficult for us,” Sek Sophal said.
Thun Saray agreed, but said his groups will continue trying. Nothing must stop the work of teaching people about social justice and democracy, he said. “Otherwise, it’s a big loss for those who thirst for justice, peace and development,” he said.
The third group, Nicfec, was more relaxed about its education prospects, saying it successfully uses performances and comedy shows to make its points about the election and democracy.
Nicfec Director Hang Puthea said he doesn’t worry about people not flocking to their entertainment. “What we do worry about is whether or not we have the budget to run the project,” he said.
“Educating people through art performances and music is the most effective way,” he said, because people understand more quickly and retain the information longer.
He said his group has four teams, including musicians, comedians and singers. The show lasts about three hours.
Wherever the Nicfec band travels, between 5,000 and 6,000 people attend without even being invited. Sometimes, the priests or local authorities even pay the performers, he boasted.
Since April, 151 shows have been performed across the country to teach people about the election, democracy and decentralization pertaining to the upcoming communal elections.
Nicfec is asking donors, including the Asia Foundation, for $130,000 to run another three-month project starting this month. The program would include production of a cassette tape of 12 songs about famous spots in Cambodia, along with information on the elections, democracy and human rights. The cassettes would be distributed free.
“These songs will be a very helpful tool to educate people because most people like listening to the music,” Hang Puthea said. “Then, they inevitably get the messages we offer.”
The new project would also include a training component and other features, he said.
Those attending the workshop called for any future elections—especially the first-ever commune elections—to be peaceful and non-violent.
“Grassroots and national leaders in all political parties must refrain from violence and let people make their own decisions,” Thun Saray said.
He said that he hopes they would listen daily to the “beautiful music.”