PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA - Touch Savuth battled in the trenches of local politics for almost 15 years before she and 47 colleagues from the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) finally cracked the ruling party’s stranglehold on commune seats in Cambodia’s Kandal province.
Taking control of just under 40 percent of the province’s 127 communes, they had smashed the dominance of the Cambodian Peoples Party (CPP), which won every one of those seats in the 2012 local ballot.
But just months after tasting that triumph, Savuth’s promotion to chief may soon be annulled if the Cambodian People’s Party follows through with its plan to dissolve her party in an ongoing crackdown on opponents ahead of next year’s national election.
On Monday, the government pushed through amendments to Cambodia’s electoral law that would see almost all 489 seats the CNRP won across the country in June gifted to the CPP, should the opposition party be dissolved.
Savuth, a health worker who partly credits her work helping the sick for the deep roots she has formed in the electorate, said the community would not take such a betrayal of trust lightly.
“Citizens trust all four CNRP [members] in the commune council. If we were kicked out, they will be lost and won’t know who they can trust to solve their problem,” she said at the Akrei Ksat commune office in Lvea Aem district last week.
“They vote for us to serve them, who will serve them when we are gone?”
At a roadside drink shop next door, the man she deposed, Douch Chan, sat with a small team biding their time.
“We have worked with each other for a long time. So she knows the work,” he conceded of his long time rival.
Chan, who had beaten Savuth at every commune election since they began in 2002, has not come to work in his new role as her subordinate since shortly after he was deposed -- an absence he attributed to a long illness before declining to be interviewed.
But down here at the local level in Lvea Aem district, the tone of political discourse is vastly more respectful and civilized than the bickering and mudslinging characteristic of the national debate.
At the adjacent commune of Sarikakeo, the CPP Second Deputy Chief Thong Lok said the council had been running smoothly since 2012 even as control swung from his party to the opposition.
“There was no internal conflict even a few months after the new commune chief. It is going smoothly,” he said.
He actually feels affinity for his colleagues from the other side of the aisle.
“If it was an order from the upper class, we have to follow the order and the law. I can’t object but yes I regret because I have been working with them for many years,” he said of the seemingly imminent political demise of CNRP chief Duong Savorn.
Monday's legislative amendments suggest Thong Lok and his CPP associates would regain control of Sarikakeo commune and practically all others around the country if the CNRP is dissolved.
Under the amendments, control of the communes is to the party that came second in the June ballot.
None of these politicians know what will happen to the CNRP’s commune seats if the party is dissolved.
Monday’s national assembly amendments suggest they will go to other minor parties, not the CPP.
However many communes were only contested by the two major parties, leaving just the CPP to absorb CNRP seats and complicating their already tenuous claim that multiparty democracy remains in tact.
At the national level, the FUNCINPEC party has been reawakened to fill almost all of the seats vacated by the CNRP - assuming they are dissolved by Cambodia’s courts. It will also theoretically pick up many commune seats under the new amendments.
In an interview with Reuters on Sunday, FUNCINPEC’s leader, the notoriously malleable former co-Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, appeared confused about what his party’s role would be in this newly crafted political landscape.
“We are not puppets,” he reportedly said. “We are definitely not an opposition party but we don’t always, always, always say ‘yes, yes, yes, yes, yes’. We can say ‘no’.”
Ranariddh’s party filed the complaint seeking the dissolution of the CNRP, with a spokesman telling The Phnom Penh Post they did it because “they took all my supporters.”
Thus far the response from opposition supporters to the comprehensive dismantling of their party has been near silence - a far cry from the mass protests that erupted after the disputed 2013 election.
Back at Akrei Ksat commune last week, a National Election Committee registration team sat idly in Touch Savuth’s office as she went her about her daily duties. Practically no one had arrived to register.
Voters in her constituency felt impotent both at the ballot and in the streets, she said.
“They don’t have power, even they have the right to vote to choose their commune chief, but their commune chiefs are being dissolved. So they lose faith in doing any protest.”
Relaxing in the front yard outside of the commune office, Kong Kimyorn, who lost his position in the last election after representing the CPP for 15 years, told VOA he had resigned himself to a new role of election monitoring.
“It is good to have the opposition party,” he said. “Without opposition parties who can check each other’s work, the country will not develop.”
Then his former boss walked over and Kimyorn fell silent.