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Election gifts under scrutiny

Votes are turned out of a ballot box for counting in Kandal province after the 2013 elections
Votes are turned out of a ballot box for counting in Kandal province after the 2013 elections. Heng Chivoan

Election gifts under scrutiny

Chuon Phang, the 79-year-old chief of Tasanh commune in Battambang’s Samlot district, has always handed out free cotton kramas to local villagers about a month ahead of elections.

But the ruling Cambodian People’s Party representative does not characterise the practice as vote-buying. He says he gives them to out to everyone, regardless of their political affiliation.

“It is normal, as we have to give people a little help. And we do not do it during the election campaign period,” he says.

“People already know which political party they are going to vote for. Therefore, I cannot buy their votes with one krama.”

Political parties in Cambodia, and the ruling CPP in particular, have long used material benefits to draw in voters ahead of elections.

From doling out cash directly, to more subtle gifts such as kramas, rice, medicine or sarongs, an approaching poll has long meant the distribution of gifts in villages around the country, election monitors say.

But while Article 71 of the soon-to-be-passed election law explicitly bans any “donations in cash or in kind as incentives by any means or in any form, to institutions, organisations, or any person, to buy votes” on the CPP’s suggestion, it only applies to the election campaign period.

Reform advocates say this and the vague wording of the law means the practice will continue unabated.

“Some countries restrict [vote buying] six to 10 months out of the election. But Cambodia [still] only emphasises it during the campaign period or election days, which this time is only 21 days,” said Comfrel executive director Koul Panha.

But Transparency International Cambodia head Preap Kol said that “indirect vote buying” in the form of gifts, while widespread, appears to be having less impact on actual democratic choices.

“The gift-giving practice was believed to have had some impact on the election result at least up until 2008, but not so much in 2013 and in the future,” he said, citing an Asia Foundation survey from last year.

The survey found that while almost all Cambodians believe it’s okay to accept money from political parties, 98 per cent say it is okay to do so and then continue to vote for the party they actually prefer.

Government spokesman Phay Siphan yesterday called for a more clear legal definition of what constitutes vote-buying before the 2018 poll, saying he believed the opposition’s wage hike promises to workers before the 2013 election could be considered as such.

While he characterised regular gift-giving from authorities as part of Cambodian culture, he agreed it should only occur “long before the election campaign takes place”.

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