Political parties that have registered to contest the June 5th commune council elections have begun introducing their candidates to supporters, with the ruling party dispersing gifts and cash to party members.
On May 21, the official two-week long campaigning period begins, but parties have used the lead-up to start sweetening the pot.
For the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which has both the human and financial resources, gifts and money have long been a cornerstone of their election campaigns.
In Kandal province’s Ampov Prey commune, the CPP held an event for 2000 party members and supporters on April 29 where officials unveiled party policy ahead of the election campaign. After the end of the meeting, they delivered gifts including noodles, sarongs, and 20,000 riel, or about $5, to the attendees.
A 62-year-old woman who declined to be named saying she was concerned about her personal safety told CamboJA that she received $5 and noodles from her local CPP leaders at the Ampil Prey event. But she stressed that she did not see the gifts as any sort of vote buying.
“They gave us this and it is their kindness that they do not force us,” she said. “When we go to cast our ballots, it is our right to vote for the party we like, they do not come to lobby us.”
She said that during the meeting, ruling party officials discussed achievements that authorities had carried out and shared party policy ahead of the election campaign.
Another attendee, who gave his name only as Pov, said he was happy to receive money, but said he suspected the incentive would likely be criticized by some.
“It is good that they gave money, but they might be criticized because it is near the election so they can be accused of buying people’s hearts,” he said.
Another villager, who gave his name only as Sok, received $2 and a party T-shirt.
“They give money to whoever has their name on the [party member] list, and if I do not go it will be difficult because they have already noted my name,” he said.
Some 17 parties have registered for the 11,622 commune council seats in 1,652 communes in 25 provinces. It is the first commune election since the Supreme Court in November 2017 disbanded the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party — a move widely perceived to be politically motivated. Before the opposition party was dissolved, it had received nearly 44% of votes during the commune elections. In the national elections the following year, the CPP won all 125 parliamentary seats.
Kim Chhorn, executive director at the Committee for Free and Fair Election in Cambodia (COMFREL), said activity before the campaign period could be seen as a violation of the election law.
“Doing activity before or after an election campaign entirely violates electoral law,” Chhorn said.
“We can say that they are giving money to win [voters’] hearts or lobbying to get them to support their own party.”
However, Sam Kuntheamy, executive director at Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Election in Cambodia (NICFEC), said that there is a loophole as the election law does not ban providing cash to members.
“There is no law stipulating that they can’t provide cash to their members, but it has a purpose to win people’s hearts,” he said.
“It is their habit [CPP] that they have provided cash to their members,” Kuntheamy said, adding that it represented unfair competition for minor political parties who lack the financial resources to support their members.
Sok Eysan, spokesman of the ruling CPP, refuted allegations that the money was a form of vote-buying, saying that it is an internal party issue.
“It does not win their hearts related to providing cash because we have only given it to our party members,” he said.
“If we give money to other political party members, that we could call trying to win their hearts but it is our own members so we do not buy their hearts,” Eysan said.
Eysan said just a small amount of cash was given to cover transport costs. He noted that CPP officials have regularly been meeting with commune councilors, candidates, and party members to ensure they provide good public services to serve local people
Hang Puthea, spokesman of the National Election Committee, says any political party gatherings before the campaign period falls under the jurisdiction of local authorities, noting that NEC is in charge of activity only during the election campaign, which runs May 21 to June 3.
He said that it is not against the election law for political parties to meet with their members at a party office or private building.
“Providing gifts or supporting money among their party members is not breaking the law,” Puthea said.
“It is just a rumor because NEC has carried out an investigation when there is an official complaint,” he said.
Lacking the resources of the well-funded ruling party, and saying they are ethically opposed to the practice, smaller parties told CamboJA they have policies against handing out cash.
The Candlelight Party has also begun meeting with supporters, but said they aren’t giving cash for fear it could be viewed as a form of vote-buying.
Sok Narean, Candlelight party working group chief in Preah Vihear province, said that on May 4, the party met about 1000 party members to disseminate political messages ahead of election campaigns.
“At the gathering of the Candlelight Party we have not provided gifts or anything to our own members, but we have eaten Khmer noodles in solidarity,” Narean said.
“The image of providing gifts by the Cambodian People’s Party is buying to win their hearts or voting-buying,” he said.
Ou Thay, 59, a member of Candlelight Party living in Phnom Penh, said he thinks voters are too savvy to be convinced by small amounts of cash.
“I think that what they [CPP] are doing is not effective because now people understand, related to buying their hearts, including family nepotism,” he said.
Khmer National United Party member Net Sinath, from Takeo province, said that her party does not provide any cash during meetings with party members and supporters.
“I think that providing gifts and other items is entirely buying their hearts,” she said.
On Thursday, the European Parliament adopted a resolution expressing “its deep concern over the backsliding on human rights in Cambodia in light of the upcoming local elections in June 2022 and national elections in 2023.”
The resolution condemned the ongoing government crackdown against journalists, activists, and the opposition “orchestrated by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian Peoples’ Party” and pushed for charges against CNRP members to be dropped and the party permitted to return to politics.
It also urged that the European Commission use all tools available, including “a complete suspension of Cambodia’s ‘Everything But Arms’ status and other sanctions,” in case electoral observers find evidence of unfair elections.