The process of swearing in commune councillors across the country began yesterday, marking the start of their five-year terms in local administration, with opposition commune chiefs saying they were undeterred by Interior Minister Sar Kheng’s comments last week instructing ruling party officials to keep opposition commune chief activities in check.
The swearing-in ceremonies are being conducted at each commune and will be completed over the next few days. In all, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party won 1,156 communes, to the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s 489 in the June 4 elections.
In Phnom Penh’s Chak Angre Leu commune, newly elected CNRP Commune Chief Srey Nhean and the commune’s 10 councillors yesterday were sworn in to an audience of party officials and constituents at a local pagoda adorned with golden statues and paintings of scenes from the Buddha’s life.
After delivering his final report, outgoing CPP chief Keo Savoeun – now second deputy chief – carried out a ceremonial handing over of the commune’s official documents and stamp to Nhean.
“We will serve the people to the best of our [ability], help them as fast as they need, and with no corruption,” Nhean said.
Savoeun, meanwhile, said he bore Nhean no ill will. “I will cooperate with him. I know I lost some support, but I think if I keep doing good to people they will again support me,” he said.
While Chak Angre Leu’s ceremonies went off without incident, in Poipet town’s Phsar Kandal commune, the two major parties had differences over the arrangements. “I wanted to have a tent for people who wanted to join the ceremony, but the former commune chief disagreed with my idea,” said new CNRP Commune Chief Khun Chanty, adding that despite the disagreement, the ceremony went ahead smoothly.
Cheat Hul, the former Phsar Kandal Commune Chief, declined to comment on the disagreement.
Opposition commune chiefs will begin their terms under the shadow of Sar Kheng’s comments, made at the inauguration of new Phnom Penh Governor Khoung Sreng, in which he made thinly veiled instructions to keep close tabs on opposition chiefs.
In the speech, he said CPP-controlled local government at the capital’s City Hall and at the provincial level would reject administrative decisions it did not agree with.
“We need to observe whether commune council decisions are right or wrong and legal or not,” he said. “The intervention does not mean we deny their decisions but ask them to take it back to review it.”
The minister even mentioned reviewing or tweaking guidelines overseeing the functioning of commune chiefs, though he did not elaborate on the specifics. Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached for comment.
The comments did little to discourage fears that the ruling party would use its near-total control of state institutions to stymie newly elected opposition officials’ efforts at the commune level.
CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua said yesterday that it was disappointing to hear the minister’s remarks, given that the opposition had clearly been given a mandate to run nearly 500 communes around the country.
“If the government and Ministry of Interior give us a tough time, it will be inappropriate and not a good sign,” she said, adding that CNRP commune chiefs would try to work with their counterparts on the other side of the aisle to serve their constituents.
She said the party was training its commune chiefs to understand the laws governing their activities, and had asked them to be careful in executing their jobs. However, any obstructionism by the CPP, she said, would backfire on the ruling party.
“If the CPP wants to lose more votes, then they should obstruct our commune chiefs,” she said. “That is their old style.”
But new commune chiefs seemed unfazed by Kheng’s comments, saying they would continue to work for the people in a bipartisan manner.
Chak Angre Leu’s Savoeun said he had worked well with his CPP counterparts and did not expect district or provincial officials to interfere in his duties. “I have no concerns, because we know that whatever I do will have to comply with the law,” he said.
In Kandal’s Takdol commune, new CNRP Commune Chief San Chamroeun said members from both parties were bound to have political differences but that he would find a way around that to ensure the people get the services they need.
“I am not concerned over that because government’s development process is to develop all communes. So I believe officials will not make any obstacles to communes led by the CNRP,” he said.