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NEWS UPDATES Asean Affairs     June 5, 2017  

Cambodia commune elections: What’s at stake?

PHNOM PENH: Millions of Cambodians will cast their ballot in commune elections on Sunday (Jun 4), a vote widely seen as a litmus test for the country’s two main political parties ahead of next year’s national elections.

Both the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which is the main opposition party, have been campaigning for two weeks with the hope of gaining crucial grassroots-level support.


They are local elections to decide 1,646 different communes (also known as sangkats) across the country. Some 88,000 candidates from 12 parties have thrown their name up for consideration. Each commune normally consists of between five and eleven council seats. Those elected to the seats make decisions about how local districts are run and how budgets are spent.

Previously these elections haven’t been seen as that important. But the current political climate and the opposition’s ambitions mean they have taken on more meaning.


About 7.8 million Cambodians have registered to vote, out of a total of 9.6 million eligible voters. The registration process went relatively smoothly late last year, but the opposition wanted the deadline extended to allow more people the chance to have their say. Many overseas-based workers were unable to register, as well as the disabled and elderly.

The CPP said they were happy with the process, complaining that the CNRP were simply trying to dredge up problems that did not exist.

There will be about 20,000 polling booths, which will open at 7am and close at 3pm. A preliminary result could come, at the latest, by Monday and the official final results will be announced on June 25.

Cambodia still uses indelible ink to ensure people can only vote once. Although it has been claimed that the ink could easily be washed off, Prime Minister Hun Sen said if it was good enough for India (which uses the same kind) then it’s good enough for Cambodia.


People generally want improvements to their daily lives, which translates to hopes for better education, improved health care and cleaner communities. Farmers want more resources for better crop yields and there is a need for better roads.

The CPP says people will vote for the party that has delivered results in the past, including building infrastructure, and can be trusted to keep the country secure into the future. Stability, as opposed to the uncertainty of the CNRP, is at the core of its message.

The CNRP says the big issue for voters is commune chiefs serving the party, not the people. They’ve promised to sink US$500,000 into each and every commune to build some of those things people are going without on a local level, like gardens and reliable and affordable electricity.They've pledged transparency and accountability and to decentralise decision making on local issues.


International observers and non-government organisations have claimed there has been an erosion of democracy, as the government took steps to shore up control of parliament and slacken any momentum the CNRP could gain among the electorate.

On the other hand, the CNRP has come under scrutiny for its closeness to several NGOs heavily involved in domestic politics. The government is investigating any collusion between the two to influence the result of the vote.


For this election, it does not strictly matter who wins the popular vote. However, the total vote share will be seen as an indicator of current support levels ahead of the national elections next year.

The opposition say they want to win 60 per cent of the vote, but have never got close to that level of support in the past. If they did manage their target, they could feasibly end up with control of about three quarters of the communes.

On the other hand, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan says he’s optimistic the party will take 100 per cent of the council seats. That is highly unlikely to happen, but they did actually get close to winning that proportion of communes last time.


A significant shift towards the CNRP would be seen as a major challenge to Hun Sen and the ruling party. It would mean the opposition would have more grassroots channels to drum up support ahead of the national election.

If the CPP maintains or even expands its national support, it would vindicate its policies and governing style, which have made it the dominant party for decades.

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