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Cambodian Voters Debate Issues with Local Candidates - 2002-02-02

Voters in Cambodia are going to the polls Sunday to elect local councils. It is the first such election because until now the districts, called communes, were governed by a chief appointed by the central government. For a nation that is emerging from decades of authoritarian rule, this election has seen another first for Cambodia: the introduction of election debates.

Hundreds of voters are packed into a steamy school auditorium on the outskirts of Phnom Penh a few days before Cambodia's elections. Ceiling fans whirl above, but cannot cool the hall as the excitement rises.

For the first time, these voters are hearing an election campaign debate. Through a focus group, they have selected their priority issues - bad roads, clogged drainage ditches, teenage delinquency and high utility bills.

The candidate from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party, Ly Chhleng Ky, tells the voters a lot of the problems are due to misuse of commune funds. Ms. Ly Chhleng receives loud applause when she pledges to fight corruption, violence, crime and gambling, before the moderator says her allotted time is up.

The candidate of the ruling Cambodia People's Party, and current commune chief, Chheng Khon, defends his record, saying he has built roads and drainage lines and has cracked down on teenage mischief. He promises to build more roads if he is elected.

Until now, the 1,600 commune chiefs in Cambodia were appointed by the Interior Ministry, which is controlled by the former Communist party. But these chiefs are being replaced by communal councils.

Analysts say this will bring other parties into local government as well as new leaders and new ideas. But the new system is also threatening the jobs of the incumbent chiefs, many of whom have ruled their communes for decades.

The debates were organized in six communes around the country. But they were not broadcast nationwide, as initially planned because of opposition by the ruling party.

The ban brought protests from election observers as well as sponsors of the debates, like the representative of the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, Eric Kessler. "In an a free and fair election, unbiased and equal voter education programs would be encouraged, not discouraged," he said.

The head of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, which organized the debates, Lao Mong Hay, says the debates have provided a lot of insights. "We will form advocacy groups in each of the six communes to follow up on what the candidates have promised and perhaps to advocate implementation of such and such measures as a matter of priority, one-by-one," he said.

Professor Lao Mong says his organization intends to publish the debates and distribute them to the newly elected council members. And in coming years, it will follow the governance of the six pilot communes to see if their leaders have implemented the wishes of their voters.

Analysts say they expect the campaign debates to return next year, when Cambodia holds national elections.