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Cablegate: Cambodian Elections: Ladies First, As Debates Go

VZCZCXRO1592
PP RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHHM RUEHNH
DE RUEHPF #0554/01 1900826
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 080826Z JUL 08
FM AMEMBASSY PHNOM PENH
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
INFO RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE PRIORITY

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 02 PHNOM PENH 000554

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR EAP/MLS, PLEASE ALSO PASS TO USAID

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV PREL KDEM KWMN CB
SUBJECT: CAMBODIAN ELECTIONS: LADIES FIRST, AS DEBATES GO
PRIME TIME

REF: A. PHNOM PENH 522
B. PHNOM PENH 403

1. (SBU) Summary: The first multi-party candidate debate in
preparation for Cambodia's July 27 election took place in
Phnom Penh July 8. This initial debate featured women
candidates from four parties, as a key theme of the National
Democratic Institute (NDI's) USAID-financed program in
Cambodia has been strengthening women's participation in
politics. A second women candidates debate will occur July
9, followed by 20 further debates taking place throughout the
country. For the first time, ten of the total 22 debates
will be broadcast on state television -- marking a
significant step forward in transparency and responsiveness
to voters' concerns. The NDI-organized debates were
initially scheduled to begin June 27, but hit a snag when NDI
presented the parties an initial list of complex and clearly
biased questions. The ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP)
predictably protested, lodging a formal complaint which the
National Election Committee (NEC) quickly adjudicated. NDI
headquarters recovered smartly, dispatching a senior offical
who managed to get the debates back on track. The Deputy
Chief of Mission delivered remarks at this morning's opening,
which will be televised with both today's and tomorrow's
debates, noting how important it is that Cambodia's 8.1
million voters have the opportunity to see their candidates
respectfully interacting and discussing important issues
affecting the future of Cambodia. End Summary.

LADIES FIRST
------------

2. (SBU) Female politicians who are listed candidates from
the Khmer Anti-Poverty Party, the Khmer Democratic Party, the
Khmer Republican Party and FUNCINPEC participated in a
televised debate July 8. Participants had a chance to
present their party's platform, before taking two randomly
selected questions prepared by NDI; one question posed by a
competing political party; and three questions posed by
members of the audience. There were some technical glitches
with this first televised debate as the cameramen adapted to
the rapidly moving format. And, by chance, the (random)
selection of which parties would go on which date grouped
less competitive parties together for this first debate.
Female candidates from the more competitive CPP, SRP, NRP and
HRP will participate in a second debate July 9. However, the
opening of the debate series marked an important step forward
in this election period. In her opening remarks, DCM
expressed delight that the debates were able to go forward --
referring without explicit reference to NDI's successful
recovery from earlier mis-steps. DCM also noted the
importance of the debates appearing on widely watched state
television, as well as four radio stations.

3. (SBU) Although the current Cambodian government has a
stated policy of encouraging increased participation by women
in politics, the number of women competing for National
Assembly seats is lower than in past Cambodian elections.
However, the women who are participating are playing more
senior roles in their respective parties and are more highly
placed on the electoral lists. Prime Minister Hun Sen has
also announced plans essentially to set quotas for female
representation in provincial positions, possibly including
creating deputy governor positions specifically for women.
Therefore, the female candidates debates provide an important
opportunity for these women's voices to be heard.

LIGHT ON SUBSTANCE
-----------------

4. (SBU) Although the July 8 debate included only women, the
debate format, questions posed, and answers provided had no
noticeable gender focus. Candidates answered NDI-formulated
questions about land use and their parties' foreign policy
platform and took questions from the audience about dealing
with poverty, addressing corruption, and developing the
economy. The debate was respectful, with all candidates
observing the rules and keeping to time limits. Candidates'
answers were at times frothy -- advocating peace and love,
respect for Cambodia's cultural heritage, and the creation of
a Ministry of Social Wellbeing. However, emboffs observing
judged this to be symptomatic of the lack of detail already
noted in the platforms of three of these parties (KAPP, KDP
and KRP). The FUNCINPEC participant was the debate's biggest
surprise, elucidating a more fully developed strategy than
we've heard in earlier sessions, but still trying to
establish FUNCINPEC's credentials as the monarchists' party.
Perhaps not surprisingly for three parties whose leaders are
American citizens, the KAPP, KDP and KRP all advocated close

PHNOM PENH 00000554 002 OF 002


ties with the U.S. -- with one candidate saying that her
party intended to negotiate visa-free entry to the U.S. and
another saying her party would solve poverty by seeking
additional foreign aid.

IT'S THE ECONOMY, STUPID
-----------------------

5. (SBU) The studio audience of some 250 included
approximately 50 individuals bedecked in KDP paraphernalia
and a slightly smaller group in FUNCINPEC yellow. Two of the
three audience members chosen to pose questions were from
local NGOs -- election observer NICFEC and youth group YCC.
The third audience member did not appear affiliated with any
organization and posed an impassioned question about how the
parties proposed to address poverty in Cambodia. The
audiences' tangible enthusiasm for this questioner's
presentation was a keen reminder of how important perceptions
about the economy, corruption and wealth distribution are
likely to be in this election. Poll data (ref B) shows that
a high percentage of Cambodians believe the country is headed
in the right direction. However, opposition parties -- most
notably SRP -- believe that the most compelling planks in
their platform combine promising better health care and more
jobs with arguments that CPP officials and their cronies are
the only ones benefiting from Cambodia's growth.


FOOTNOTE: PREAH VIHEAR
----------------------

6. (SBU) Although the World Heritage Committee's decision to
list the Preah Vihear temple had not yet been publicized in
Cambodia at the time of the debate, three of the four
candidates mentioned Preah Vihear in their remarks, reminding
us of the importance many Cambodians place on this issue.
The candidates from FUNCINPEC and KRP cited the temple to
emphasize sovereignty and national pride. Later, the
FUNCINPEC rep answered a question about her party's highest
foreign policy priority by stressing the importance of
promoting Cambodia's national heritage, including temples,
and taking action against looting.
MUSSOMELI

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