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Still Lessons to Learn for Cambodians Watching U.S. Election Campaign

A voter enters a voting booth to fill out a ballot in the U.S. Presidential primary election at the Hale House at Balsams Hotel in Dixville Notch, New Hampshire, Feb. 9, 2016.

Campaigning in America involves numerous televised public debates, with candidates getting fairly equal opportunities to put forward their proposals to voters.

The ongoing presidential election campaign in the United States may be one of the more unseemly the country has seen, but observers and politicians in Cambodia say their country still has a lot to learn from the American democratic process.

Prime Minister Hun Sen and the opposition’s chief whip, Son Chhay, have indicated that both sides of Cambodia’s political divide are watching closely. Hun Sen poked fun at the election campaign in the U.S., noting its “roadblocks and bad words.” Son Chhay said he was concerned over the “aggressive” style of leading Republican contender Donald Trump.

Trump has made outrageous comments about refugees from the Middle East, and says he wants to build a huge wall along the U.S.-Mexican border. His political rallies have been marred by clashes between his supporters and protesters, amid accusations that Trump himself incites violence in his speeches.

Regardless, said Ou Virak, president of Phnom Penh-based think tank Future Forum, “There are some lessons that we could learn.”

In the U.S., the political parties are conducting a primary process that is taking place in public. Campaigning involves numerous televised public debates, with candidates getting fairly equal opportunities to put forward their proposals to voters.

In Cambodian elections, meanwhile, candidates generally do not debate each other, on television or elsewhere. And among the opposition’s complaints about past elections have been that the CPP enjoys greater access to media—all private TV stations and most newspapers are controlled by people loyal to Hun Sen.

Like in the U.S., Cambodia’s political parties should each have the same chance to get exposure, said Virak. Televised debates would also give the public a chance to fairly compare candidates, he said.

“We’ve seen the [U.S.] campaigning on TV. The debates among candidates in the same party are live on TV multiple times” in the U.S., he said. “What we have not seen [in Cambodia] is competition within the parties.”

U.S. Embassy spokesman Jay Raman told VOA Khmer that he hoped his country’s election campaign would “set a positive example for the rest of the world and encourage countries to adopt a democratic model that fits their unique situation.”

“There is no one right or wrong way to run a democracy,” Raman added. “We do, however, believe that an open, transparent, and competitive multi­party democracy that reflects the will of the people is beneficial to peace, development, and economic growth.”

The official spokesman of Cambodia’s National Election Committee, Hang Puthea, said that Cambodia could learn not only from the U.S. but also other countries around the world to improve its elections.

“For its elections, Cambodia has retrieved experience from some countries, including the U.S.,” he said. “The U.S. election could be a resource for Cambodian politicians to avoid negative points and absorb positive points, to succeed in choosing a leader, to make people’s lives better, and for the elections to be accepted by all relevant parties.”

Puthea said he also advocated Cambodia’s political parties setting out clear policies on which they can be judged by voters. “This requires politician to have clear strategies and plans in order to attract support from the people,” he said.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party’s Son Chhay also said Cambodia could learn from the open nature of debate in American politics.

“The leaders have to show their stances and their policies on various issues that heavily affect the country. They do it freely, without fear,” he said.

As well as ensuring all parties have equal access to media, Cambodia could improve voter registration and allow people to vote where they work, rather than having to make the journey back to their provinces during elections, he said.

Son Chhay added that in U.S. elections, “There is no stealing votes or any provoking incidents that lead to suspicions about the voting result.”

After the long stand off that followed the 2013 elections, Cambodia’s two main parties last year agreed to build something they called a “culture of dialogue.” While ill-defined, it was hoped this would encourage a more collaborative political atmosphere in which policy could be discussed without recriminations.

This scheme collapsed late last year amid new arrests of opposition lawmakers, however.

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said that, given the current political climate, it would take Cambodia another 10 to 15 years to get to a stage where leaders could engage in public discussion in a way similar to American televised debates.

“We have not even had a culture of dialogue yet,” he said. “The opposition party has not yet fully been involved in the issue,” he said.

“After the culture of dialogue, then we can have debates,” Siphan added.