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Cambodian Views on Democracy and Electoral Reform

December 10, 2014

By Silas Everett

The Asia Foundation’s third national survey on democratic development in Cambodia released today suggests some sobering trends in public opinion, despite significant economic growth and poverty reduction over the last decade and what some see as a path toward relative stability post elections.

The survey, a follow up from prior surveys conducted in 2000 and 2003, is based on 1,000 face-to-face interviews with Cambodian citizens in 23 provinces (excluding Kep) and Phnom Penh. Polling was conducted from May 19 to June 9 – after the government crackdown on growing anti-government demonstrations on Jan. 2-3, 2014, and before a compromise was reached by the opposition CNRP party and ruling CPP party on July 22, 2014, which ended the opposition’s boycott of the national assembly on claims of voter fraud during the 2013 national assembly election.

CambodiaElectionPosters

While equitable access to the media for all political parties does not appear to be an overriding problem for most Cambodians, half of respondents said that they didn’t have enough information on election day. Photo/Karl Grobl

While the data was collected in a period of high uncertainty, which is likely to have influenced public opinion, the 2013 national assembly elections did mark the biggest decline in voter support for the ruling party in two decades. However, the survey findings suggest the July agreement was popular on at least two accounts: first, the majority of those in the 2014 survey support a constitutional amendment to provide for a “balanced” National Election Committee (NEC); and second, the majority of respondents believe that electoral reform should take place before elections (rather than call for snap elections before an independent NEC was formed and reforms completed).

The majority of respondents said the 2013 National Assembly elections were not “free and fair” and that significant problems in the way elections are conducted in Cambodia remain. “Names lost from the election list” was by far the most common problem cited with 2013 national elections. Nearly all respondents had heard of the National Election Committee (NEC), but just a third were satisfied with its work. In fact, only one in four respondents believed the NEC is free from the influence of political parties. Four out of five Cambodians preferred the NEC to be independent, regardless of cost.

While equitable access to the media for all political parties does not appear to be an overriding problem for most Cambodians, half of respondents said that they didn’t have enough information on election day. As such, political parties have a significant voter education challenge in advance of the 2017 Commune Council elections and the 2018 National Assembly elections. Two thirds of the respondents did not know any major policy differences between the political parties’ platforms, or could not articulate a difference. Four out of five respondents couldn’t name their National Assembly representative. Only one out of ten respondents had heard of one of their representatives visiting their province since the 2013 national elections.

In support of these findings, almost half of all respondents hold the view that local government decisions affect their lives more than decisions of the national government. In fact, half of the respondents believe it makes sense to follow the recommendations of local leaders when selecting which candidate to vote for. Unsurprisingly then the majority of respondents (particularly youth) still hold the view of the relationship between government and citizen as being one of parent to child versus a relationship of equals.

Respondents’ personal economic conditions appear to have weighed heavily on respondents views. The dramatic shift in public opinion can be attributed to the rising expectations of a society in a rapid economic transition. Cambodians are increasingly demanding better performance in both government and private sector service delivery. Regulatory functions of the state are becoming more important as household livelihood’s become increasingly dependent on off-farm income. With more income and newly emerging disparities between rich and poor, at the same time, more Cambodians are being exposed to other countries and the higher standard of services found in those countries.

As Cambodians’ economic aspirations have expanded, the survey finds that citizens’ ability to function within a democracy has significantly improved in the last 10 years. For example, virtually all respondents believe that it is okay to take money from political parties but vote for the party they like. Where electoral violence was a widespread concern in 2003, in 2014 Cambodians expressed high degrees of political tolerance following the largely peaceful elections in 2013. However, the survey found the overall societal trust to be extremely low in Cambodia. While trust in government institutions was also very low, trust appeared to improve significantly with proximity. About half of respondents said people in their neighborhoods are trustworthy.

Freedom to express political opinion and freedom to associate varied greatly among the respondents depending on the provinces surveyed. Over half of the respondents said they feel free to express political opinions in the area where they live. However, among those who said they were dissatisfied with government performance, this number dropped to two out of five. Similarly two thirds of all respondents said they think people can associate freely in their locality; yet, among respondents who said they were dissatisfied with the performance of government, only half said they think people can associate freely where they live.

The survey points to a number of popular reforms that are within reach. Foremost, given the respondents’ low levels of trust with government, improving access to information and building open, two-way channels of communications with the public will prompt government bureaucracies to sustain reform, such as in the implementation of the next three year plan for decentralization. Already, the Ministry of Interior-sponsored social accountability framework, which is currently being piloted in 22 districts, provides tools and procedures adaptable for all line ministries across government and at each sub-national level and national level is readily available to comprehensively improve citizen-government engagement. As the 2017 commune elections and 2018 national elections loom, it will be increasingly important to demonstrate resolve in addressing voter expectations.

Silas Everett is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Cambodia. He can be reached at silas.everett@asiafoundation.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Cambodia
Related programs: Economic Opportunity, Elections, Strengthen Governance
Related topics: Corruption

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