The creation of new cities and districts across three provinces following a December 3 sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen will strengthen ruling party control in those areas, opposition political parties say.
Three new cities and two new districts will be formed from a total of 36 communes across Kampong Speu, Kandal and Kratie provinces, the sub-decree declared.
“We can say [it is] a…strategy to break power, it will be easier [for the CPP] to keep control,” said opposition Candlelight party vice president Thach Setha.
Whereas communes — administrative clusters of villages — are governed by elected councillors, cities and districts, which govern communes, are led by governors directly appointed by the Prime Minister. The governors for the newly decreed administrations have not yet been announced.
CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan rejected the notion that the new administrative zoning was connected to the ruling party’s political interests.
“The creation [of these administrations] is related to geography and demography to make it easier to control and provide the public closer to the local people,” he said. “It isn’t related to political gain. The creation of administrations…will make it easier to serve people.”
In Kandal, Akrei Khsat city was created from six communes in Khsach Kandal district and five communes from Lvea Em district, while Sampov Poun city pulled five communes from existing Koh Thom district. Kratie’s new district, O’Krieng Senchey, consists of five communes.
In Kampong Speu province’s former Odong district, all 15 communes will be reconfigured as Odong Mechey city and Samakki Monichey district.
All the new districts and cities voted overwhelmingly in favor of the CPP in the 2022 commune elections, but historically some of these areas have favored the opposition.
Kampong Speu has leaned towards opposition parties, such as in 2013 when the now-dissolved CNRP beat out the CPP by more than 5,000 votes, according to National Election Committee data.
In the 2022 commune council elections, the CPP won Odong district with 68,271 votes to Candlelight’s 13,703 votes, while other opposition parties collectively garnered a little more than 2,000 additional votes.
“People [in Kampong Speu province] have supported the opposition party because they wanted to change [leaders] and they wanted better livelihoods,” said Ty Buntheng, Candlelight’s Kampong Speu provincial party chief.
He said he saw the split of Odong into a new district and city will bolster CPP control but added, “I do not want to explain the details because I am afraid they will accuse us.”
Odong Mechey city is comprised of five communes where, in the 2022 commune elections, the CPP gained 25,376 votes, Candlelight 4,686 votes, Khmer National United Party (KNUP) 461 votes, and Funcinpec 61 votes, according to NEC results.
Sammaki Monichey district consists of 10 communes which, in the 2022 commune elections, saw the CPP receive 42,940 votes, Candlelight 9017 votes and the KUNP 1526 votes.
Kampong Speu provincial governor Vei Samnang said the creation of Odong Mechey city would strengthen administrative management, enhance public order and allow for public services to be provided more efficiently.
“We have planned [the creation of a new city] for a long time, but we do not want to disclose it because we are afraid people will flock to buy the land which would be difficult to manage,” Samnang said.
He denied any political motive behind the administrative measure, adding a seeming threat to those who implied otherwise.
“It is their business whatever they want to say,” he said. “And as you know, in Kampong Speu there is a prison, and bad people will be imprisoned there.”
In Kandal province, the former communes of Akrei Khsat and Sam Pov Poun became classified as cities.
Ou Chanrath, vice president of the Cambodia Reform Party and a former CNRP lawmaker, said he believed the new administration areas were intended to improve the CPP’s outcome in the 2023 national election and consolidate further power.
“I do not support the creation [of new administrations] because I have seen it is not necessary,” Chanrath said.
Rather than creating new cities, he said the government should increase the National Assembly’s seats in provinces which have a single seat.
“When there are more seats in those small provinces, and the opposition party wins some seats, it will be more representative of people’s voices,” Chanrath said. “We don’t want to see a single party to win all the seats.”
New administration zones will require further spending to pay for administrators’ salaries and other costs of governance, he added.
Political analyst Em Sovannara argued new cities are not necessary to create but simply serve to open up more leadership positions to install CPP loyalists and undermine potential opposition.
“The ruling CPP can maintain its popularity among supporters because when they have divided new administrative zones, voices supporting the opposition party will be split,” he said.
In 2013, the government created Tboung Khmum province by cutting out pro-CPP communes from Kampong Cham, a province which had voted heavily for the CNRP, according to the Phnom Penh Post.
Interior Ministry secretary of state Sak Setha, Kandal provincial governor Kong Sophorn and Kratie provincial governor Var Thorn could not be reached for comment.