With voter turnout falling from 85 percent in 1993 to 60 percent in general elections last year, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections has expanded its scope, moving beyond elections and choosing to monitor promises made by politicians in campaigns.
Koul Panha, executive director of Comfrel, recently expressed his worries that politicians have been breaking their promises, such as gender equity, attacking drug abuse, deforestation, land grabbing and theft, or improving fisheries rights, good governance, education, development or poverty reduction.
To ensure voters feel their ballots have value, Comfrel has been organizing public forums, including discussions and question and answer sessions among citizens and council members for communes, districts and cities or provinces.
Previous forums with lawmakers, he said, have unfortunately seen low attendance by lawmakers from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, so the group changed to council members, even though they are not directly elected by voters.
“We reduced it, and changed to seminars to get lawmakers to participate,” he said in a recent interview.
Hun Neng, CPP governor of Kompong Cham province and brother of Prime Minister Hun Sen, said lawmakers were too busy working on their promises to take part in Comfrel forums.
“CPP officials are doers,” he said. “They don’t just pay lip service. We make canals, build pagodas and schools, dig clean water wells, and so on.”
He acknowledged that forums between the public and officials were important, but he said council members were doing a good job of listening to voter requests and discussing with them development plans.
“NGOs have asked permission for public forums between voters and lawmakers,” he said. “Well, they are very important. Many forums have been organized now and then.”
Penn Saroeun, a coordinator for public forums in Pursat province, said voters enjoyed the meetings.
“I organize them and people join them like a landslide,” he said. “They support the program. They are very happy with it. In forums, voters ask councilors what they have promised. What have they done? What failed, and why?”
Generally, he said, lawmakers fail to meet their promises because they work more for their own party than their constituents. However, he said, the CPP has done a better job on its promises.
“The ruling party has power all over the province,” he said. “They can do what they wish. The opposition can only help, for example in land grabs, help people file complaints. They try to help and do their best.”
Por Ham, a council member for Bat Kandoul commune, Krakor district, Pursat, said the public forums were crucial for transparency and good governance.
“People saw destruction which was cracked down but the offenders were not arrested and convicted. Seeing not law enforcement, they raised the issues at the forums, reporting someone did such and such.”
Comfrel lets voters decide the topics of the forums for issues in the communities, though it does at times set the agenda for women’s issues.
“We’ve seen that women’s issues are critical and take place in every community, particularly domestic violence, sexual abuse and women’s participation in health and education,” Koul Panha said. “We encourage discussion on women’s issues in particular.”
Lon Sithann, a coordinator for public forums in Preah Vihear province, said the forums she organizes focus on such issues, including gender inequality.
“We want more women candidates, up to 30 percent, to encourage them,” she said. “Political parties list women candidates lower on the list. Boys go to school more than girls, so far. Girls quit school at grade seven or eight at most. Parents want them to do house work.”
Public forums help women understand their rights better and help them report violence and abuse, she said.
The forums also help people understand land title laws and instruct them on how to solve land disputes through mediation at the local official level, rather than taking them to the courts, which are perceived as corrupt and unfair, Koul Panha said.
So far, they’ve prepared 300 forums.
“The core mission remains a free and fair election, but we expanded our operation to have election results that are meaningful to voters,” Koul Panha said. “We believe and hope people will continue to go to polling stations, seeing that their participation in elections is meaningful.”