In a country known for its political patronage networks, volunteering for a demotion is rare. But Moeung Visalsok, 46, a ruling Cambodian People’s Party district council member in Kampong Chhnang province, is doing just that.
He says he will shortly leave his post to contest the Kdol Snechey commune constituency in a bid to stop the swing seat going to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which is fielding a popular, yet inexperienced local candidate.
Visalsok says he wants to play off of his reputation in the area as a trustworthy politician to ensure the commune does not elect an opposition candidate at the polls on June 4.
“If I don’t stand, I am afraid that the party will not win. I am afraid, that is why I stand,” he said. “I think that if I am still the district council, I can’t help people directly. If am here, I will be truly able to help people,” he added.
He says the current commune chief, Kong Sam Im, has gained a bad reputation and would jeopardize the CPP’s chances if he stood again. “I see that the current commune chief does not lead very well. I always keep in mind that if the commune chief leads well already, I won’t stand,” he said.
Kdol Senchey is a new commune, having only been created last year when the neighboring Kraing Skea commune was divided. It has five council seats, where six parties will compete for votes from about 3,000 constituents.
Visalsok claims to have spent nearly eight years as a councilor working to improve the lives of the poor and disadvantaged. He says he helped build schools, pagodas and hospitals, which increased his popularity among locals.
He has pledged that if he is elected, he will donate some of his $220 monthly salary “to help the poor” as his wife runs a successful grocery business.
“My wife can support me ... she can pay for my gasoline,” he said, adding that he would seek to rebuild roads, irrigation systems and increase tourism if elected.
However, Chhoeun Khim, 47, the opposition candidate, said locals were tired of broken promises from the ruling party, which he said was widely seen as corrupt, adding that people “need a change” of “the whole government and commune chiefs”.
He said people were likely to vote in increasing numbers for the CNRP following its pledge to increase communes’ annual budgets to $500,000. “I promise that I will be a good commune chief who serves the people first and will not be involved in corruption,” he added.
“The CPP candidate is richer than me and he is also in the district council. I am not worried since I have the will and intention to truly serve people. If I win, I will not commit corruption and take any money from people,” he said.
Khim’s policy platform includes increased health care services, natural resources protection and a focus on combating crime.
But it appears Visalsok’s strategy of heading off a CPP route at the ballot box may be working. Many in the commune who spoke to VOA Khmer were unfamiliar with Khim, saying they would vote for Visalsok as they recognized him from his duties in the district council.
Ourm Sina, 28, a street food seller, said while she wanted to change the commune chief and would not have supported Sam Im running for another term, she would be voting for Visalsok.
“Most of the people in this commune will vote for the CPP. I have wanted change for a long time,” she said.
Another villager, Lout Noeuy, 65, said she would also vote for Visalsok as he had personally provided rice and other support to her and her friends in the past.
“He is good at his work because he always helps poor people. So I have to vote for him.”
Many blame the incumbent, Sam Im, for their woes. He admitted that his time in office had had both “good and bad points”.
“I am not perfect. I have loopholes,” he said, but blamed low funding for a lack of progress during his tenure.
Khim does have support in the commune’s downtown areas, however, where Thai Channy, 37, says she will lend him her vote if he can rebuild the area’s crumbling infrastructure.
“He [Khim] helps people and never mistreats anyone. I will definitely vote for him,” she says.