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An unequal playing field

An employee folds custom-designed CPP shirts at a printing house in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Keng Kang 1 district yesterday. Vireak Mai
An employee folds custom-designed CPP shirts at a printing house in Phnom Penh’s Boeung Keng Kang 1 district yesterday. VIREAK MAI

An unequal playing field

After spending a year fundraising, first-time candidate Rotana Pin boasts a $50,000 war chest for his run for a National Assembly seat in Battambang next month. A member of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, however, Pin will be up against prime competitors who likely extended far less effort for much more money.

The amount of time and energy required to fund a campaign greatly depends on the candidate’s party. And in a country with some of the most lax political finance laws in Southeast Asia, the return on invested effort also very much hinges on that factor.

During the last election, for instance, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party spent 10 times the amount campaigning as did the opposition Human Rights and Sam Rainsy parties, a 2012 analysis by the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) found. That figure does not take into account valuable perks, such as favourable airtime on TV, the CPP enjoys.

To fund those massive campaigns, the ruling party collects hefty donations from large businesses and the country’s wealthy elite, explained Koul Panha, Comfrel’s executive director. In return, the companies and the Oknhas who run them often enjoy favouritism in securing contracts for government projects, tax incentives and sometimes even economic land concessions and use of military resources to protect their business interests.

Domestic contributors to the CNRP are almost always from individuals, with businesses occasionally donating anonymously for fear of reprisal, according to the party.

“It’s not fair competition,” Panha said.

To raise his funds, Rotana criss-crossed America and Cambodia in a dizzying effort to fill election coffers enough to compete. He wasn’t able to rely on the big-money donations CPP members receive on a regular basis.

All told, the CNRP raised about $1 million for their 2013 run, said Yim Sovann, a party spokesman and candidate for a Phnom Penh seat on the Assembly.

Candidates running for a seat must contribute according to their location and rank on the candidate list, Sovann said.

For example, the party expects to receive four or five Assembly seats in Phnom Penh. So the top four candidates – including Sovann – who are expected to win a seat, pay the highest rate of all the Phnom Penh candidates at $24,000.

CNRP members also pay 15 per cent of their salaries into the party for operation costs, Sovann said.

When all 27 serving lawmakers were dismissed from the National Assembly earlier this month (a move ruling party Permanent Committee member Chheang Vun said was necessary because they violated the law by changing parties during their terms), the resulting salary loss put a $240,000 dent in the party’s budget.

Fundraising abroad has been a pivotal part of financing CNRP campaigns.

Between 10 and 20 per cent of their total campaign contributions come from Cambodians living in other countries, according to Sovann. “The president of the party, vice-president of the party have to go abroad very often to raise funds,” Sovann said. “[Donors] want to contribute, but they need a very big figure, a very influential figure, like Mr Sam Rainsy or Mr Kem Sokha.”

Fundraisers outside Cambodia can be modestly successful without party leadership in attendance, but net far more funds with them, said Pin, who lived in Texas for more than 20 years before returning to run. His own events could bring in between $2,000 and $3,000; those featuring Rainsy or Sokha often rake in upwards of $30,000.

CPP candidates need not travel like their opponents, said Panha. They also need not discuss how much money they raised, where the money comes from, or what might have been promised in exchange.

Ruling party lawmakers and spokesmen declined to respond to repeated questions this week concerning their finances. According to Cambodian law, neither they nor anyone else in the country are required to disclose any party financial information to the public.

Opacity and transparency
A 2011 study by the International Foundation for Electoral Systems comparing political finance regulation in six Southeast Asian countries – Cambodia, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia, Timor Leste and the Philippines – reported that Cambodia was the only one “where legislation does not specifically note that financial information received from political parties should be made available to the people”.

All political parties are required to submit an annual report of their financial data to the Ministry of Interior and the Ministry of Economy and Finance by the end of the calendar year, said Sat Phea, a program coordinator for Cambodia’s branch of the foundation; but that data is private.

The Law on Elections of Members of the National Assembly, meanwhile, requires parties to keep records of their income, income sources and expenses. But nothing in the law stipulates they must report this information to the National Election Committee or any other legal entity.

“There’s very little in the law with respect to what the NEC mandate is with respect to campaign finance,” said Robert Patterson, IFES chief of party in Cambodia.

“There’s only one section in the law that deals with campaign finance, and that’s the review of campaign finance.”

The section gives the NEC authority to look at a party’s campaign finance if they see fit, but does not require parties to report the information, Patterson said.

Since the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia first organised elections in 1993, NEC officials have never examined a political party’s campaign finance records, said NEC Secretary General Tep Nytha.

NEC law does not require parties to elaborate their campaign budgets, Nytha said, and the commission has never received a complaint about a party’s campaign finances.

Laws also place no limit on how much money a party can collect from a single donor, or how much they can spend campaigning. And though laws do prohibit the use of state resources, monitors have made repeated note of the CPP using them while campaigning.

One grey area recorded only weeks ago was when state
vehicles were used to help transport people to anti-Sokha rallies over his alleged comments that Khmer Rouge torture centre Tuol Sleng was “staged”.

Illegal usage of state resources for campaign purposes is punishable under the law, said CPP spokesman, Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith, who maintained that the party relies only on its network of supporters and legal income to run their campaign.

The permissive atmosphere and lack of regulation in financing National Assembly campaigns, however, breeds corruption during and after the campaign, said Panha. He and others in an election finance law working group wrote a draft law that would require parties to report all campaign contributions to the NEC and forbid parties from accepting money obtained through illegal activity, among many other rules.

But the law has drummed up little interest from those with the power to pass it. Just yesterday, Comfrel invited all eight political parties contesting this election to sign an agreement promising to disclose their campaign finances.

The opposition and four out of five small parties signed. The CPP and its coalition partner Funcinpec, however, were nowhere to be seen.


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