NDI/CPD 2012 Cambodian Commune Council Debate Series: A Case Study by Austin Owen
Despite nearly two decades of single party rule in parliament and the continued reign of Prime Minister Hun Sen, Cambodia has made significant democratic progress at the commune and province level. In this environment of local democratization, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) and the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) partnered to organize a series of candidate debates during the campaign season of the 2012 Cambodian commune council elections.
In the ten debates put on as part of the project, NDI and CPD provided messaging and public speaking training to candidates, organized questioning from moderators and audience members, and worked with local radio stations to record and rebroadcast the debates prior to the election. Key details of the program are highlighted below.
Forty-three candidates from seven political parties debated local issues in front of audiences totaling over 7,000 people; radio broadcasts carried the debates in parts of 20 of the nation’s 24 provinces
80% of those exposed to the debates reported learning something new, and 85% said that the debates increased their confidence in Cambodian elections
However, only 17% of those in the program’s radio broadcast area were aware of the program, concentrating the positive impact highlighted above in a very small portion of the general population
Given the highly positive yet limited impact of this program, several important lessons learned may benefit similar projects in the future.
Effective democracy promotion programs do not ignore the potential for local democratization even in countries still ruled by an autocratic regime
Candidate debates, if run fairly and impartially, can be a very effective way to promote open political discourse and reinforce the legitimacy of contested elections
The primary limitation of candidate debates as democracy promotion programs is one of accessibility, a challenge that requires effective cooperation with local partners and knowledge of the local media environment
- Ultimately, the 2012 Cambodian commune council debate program sponsored by NDI and CPD was an effective yet limited program that promoted local democracy in a country still struggling with authoritarian rule at the national level.
Since the end of French colonial rule in 1953, Cambodia has had a troubled political history often characterized by violence, repression, and autocracy. However, after nearly four decades of internal strife (and conflicts with neighboring countries like Vietnam), a United Nations-brokered peace agreement was reached in 1991 that aimed to establish a free, multiparty democratic system in Cambodia.
While this foundation seemed to hold for several years, Cambodia slid back into autocracy in 1997, when former Prime Minister Hun Sen led a coup that installed the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in power. Cambodia now holds regular elections, but opposition parties routinely boycott parliament as vote manipulation and intimidation ensure that CPP’s national rule is not seriously threatened. At the national level, Cambodia continues to fall far short of the standards of open democracy, and the ruling party has shown little interest in moving the country towards that end
In contrast, Cambodian local governance has displayed a far greater trend towards democratization. Positions on commune councils are far more open to legitimate contestation than seats in the national parliament, and opposition parties have shown strong gains at the local level throughout the country (even though a majority of local government positions are still held by CPP). According to the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (CFFEC), the 2012 local elections occurred in a political climate of significantly decreased violence and an absence of severe “technical irregularities,” particularly when compared to previous local elections in 2002 and 2007.
While the Cambodian political system still falls far short of fully democratic standards, this progress at the local level is highly encouraging and presents an opportunity for democracy promotion within a country still ruled by an authoritarian regime.
This project was developed and carried out by the National Democratic Institute (NDI) in partnership with the U.S. based Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD). NDI aims to promote democratic governance around the world, receiving much of its funding from the United States Government and the National Endowment for Democracy.
In contrast, CPD is a primarily domestic organization, responsible for hosting all official Presidential and Vice-Presidential debates in the United States since 1987. With CPD’s strong track record of reaching tens of millions of viewers through a variety of media formats, the partnership of these organizations allowed the global efforts of NDI to benefit from the domestic experience and technical capability of CPD.
The main participants in the project were candidates for commune council positions. Cambodian commune councils, first established in 2002, administer public services like sanitation and education and have significant responsibilities for local conflict reconciliation, sometimes serving in a quasi-judicial role.
The candidates for these offices represented ten provinces and seven political parties, and nine of the candidates were women. Additionally, the project included three radio stations in central, southwest, and northwest Cambodia that broadcast the debates across a geographic area covering at least part of 20 of the nation’s 24 provinces.
The project impact survey was carried out by the Center for Advanced Study (CAS), a nonpartisan Cambodian research institute.
The center was founded in 1996 with the goal of providing “excellence in research and capacity building for the development of Cambodia,” and it has since carried out major projects and survey initiatives for groups like the Asia Foundation.
Teams of researchers from CAS were responsible for conducting in-person interviews throughout the country to evaluate the reach and impact of the commune council candidate debates.
In order to take advantage of the more hospitable climate at the local level of Cambodian politics and help instill democratic norms in civic life, the NDI and CPD sponsored a candidate debates series forthe 2012 commune council elections. The program aimed to ensure that a wide variety of perspectives and policy proposals would be offered to voters, a mission that the NDI deemed critical because these local councils were often “the public’s first point of contact with government.”Equally important to the project was the goal of cementing a precedent of free and peaceful exchange of ideas between opposing political candidates, a norm crucial to sustained democratic governance yet mostly absent from Cambodia’s political tradition.
The project began by selecting commune council races in ten provinces across the country and offering all candidates and parties in those races the opportunity to participate in a moderated, multi-candidate debate. These debates were to be open to the public and include unmoderated questioning from the audience. In the locality of each debate, NDI worked with civil society groups to hold citizen forums on the upcoming elections; the concerns and topics raised at each session were then relayed to all candidates and political parties participating in that area’s debate so that they could prepare to address local concerns. NDI also ran candidate workshops that focused on public speaking skills and messaging strategies, leveraging much of the experience of the American CPD. In order to ensure impartiality, NDI staff moderated each debate according to a prewritten script and made all candidates aware of the time restrictions and debate format in advance.
The ten debates took place between May 18 and May 30, 2012, and they included 43 candidates from seven different political parties. The nationally dominant CPP faced strong challenges from opposition parties focusing on human rights and democratic reforms, and the debates gave Cambodian citizens the opportunity to judge their local candidates directly against one another. More than 7,000 Cambodian citizens attended the debate series in total, and attendance at every debate was greater than 500.
In order to further expand the impact of the project, NDI partnered with three Cambodian radio stations to record and broadcast the debates. These stations covered most of central, southwest, and northwest Cambodia, and they reached both urban and rural audiences. Estimates of coverage area provided by these stations to NDI indicated that they reached around 20 of the nation’s 24 provinces. Each debate was rebroadcast at least once prior to election day.
In August 2012, three months after the debate series and one month afterthe elections, the CAS began its project impact survey aiming to determine the reach and efficacy of the program. The Center’s research team conducted a 1,200-person survey using a representative sample of the population covered by the program’s radio broadcasts. Respondents were asked a series of questions regarding whether or not they had been exposed to the debates (either in person or via radio) and whether or not the debates had influenced their opinions or votes.
Among those who had been exposed to the candidate debates, the impact of the program was very high. Nearly 80% of respondents who listened to the debates via radio reported that it impacted their view of one of the candidates or political parties, and nearly 90% of respondents who listened to the debates said that “the candidates spoke to the issues that [were] most important to them and their family.” Over 85% said that “the debates increased their confidence in election fairness in Cambodia.”
However, while these numbers indicate that the impact of the project among those who were exposed to the debate series was high, the overall reach of the project was fairly low. Only 17% of total respondents reported being aware of the debate series at all, and only 13% of total respondents reported listening to some or all of the debates. Even after the series concluded and elections were held, 25% of respondents felt that they “did not have adequate information about their electoral options.”
However, despite the program’s low reach, the impact survey also yielded some encouraging results for future similar projects. This limitation can largely be explained by the NDI’s choice of partner radio stations; of the three stations that rebroadcast the debates, only one ranked in the country’s top twenty stations for average listeners. Given that more than 65% of respondents indicated that they would have been interested had they known about the program, the impact survey yielded an image of a generally successful yet limited program with the potential for more effective implementation in the future.
The NDI and CPD’s 2012 Cambodian commune council debate series had a generally positive yet somewhat limited impact on local democracy. While the project received strong positive feedback from voters who were exposed to the program, advertising and awareness struggles undermined some of the project’s broader potential. Still, the program was a positive step in Cambodia’s democratization at the local level, as it brought together opposing candidates and worked to instill norms of peaceful contestation and open discourse. With regard to local governance and democratization, this Cambodian experience yields several important conclusions.
Local democracy promotion programs can be effective in countries that, at the national level, are still dominated by an undemocratic regime; these programs impact governance at the level of most citizen interaction and can help set norms for a nation’s political culture
Local candidate debates effectively expose citizens in a democratizing country to the principles of peaceful contestation and open political discourse by equally legitimizing the ruling party and the opposition; fair and impartial rules and effective moderation are necessary
Accessibility is the chief limitation on the efficacy of local candidate debates; the limitations of an in-person audience necessitate some type of recording and broadcasting effort in order for the program to be broadly effective beyond the initial audience; partnering with popular local media outlets is crucial for this effort to be effective
Despite some limitations in scope, the project demonstrated the potential for local candidate debates to increase voter engagement and faith in the political system; among those that it reached, the program was received very positively. If proper adjustments are made to ensure that similar future programs are effectively promoted and readily accessible through local channels, the 2012Cambodian commune council debate series can serve as an instructive model for future democratization projects.
BBC News, Cambodia profile – Timeline (British Broadcasting Corporation, September 23, 2016)http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-13006828
 Committee on Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, Final Assessment and Report on the 2012 Commune Council Elections (Committee on Free and Fair elections in Cambodia, October 2012). http://www.comfrel.org/eng/components/com_mypublications/files/620271Fin...
National Democratic Institute (NDI), NDI Report on Survey Findings from the 2012 Commune Council Candidate Debates (National Democratic Institute, September 2012). https://www.ndi.org/files/Cambodia-report-survey-findings-debates-0912.pdf
 NDI, NDI Report.
NDI, NDI Report.