Gettin’ Out the Vote- Elections in Cambodia vs the US

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Cambodian American? 🙂

Upon arriving here in Cambodia in mid-September until the elections November 4th , I’d been spending the bulk of my sunny Saturday afternoons and scattered weeknights helping Americans of various political leanings register and mail in their absentee ballots.  It was a great way to engage in this very important election and fulfill my grassrootsy cravings I can’t seem to shake.  It has been great fun— I met all sorts of interesting people- from lawyers on the Khmer Rouge Tribunal to backpackers, to English teachers to Fulbright scholars, Cambodian Americans who escaped the wars, the young, old, and even a few shabby, lone wonderers (not to mention both republicans and democrats—the republicans do not have an organization assisting their overseas voters).

We also screened the debates, showed political films and stirred up the crowds— many of which weren’t actually American—just interested foreigners from all over the world.  Everyone’s got an opinion about this election, it seems, and watching it all unfold from afar is just another reminder of how the US has an incredible stake and responsibility to the rest of the world.  It is a small world —indeed— and living in Cambodia where democracy sometimes plays out like a political farce clarifies this incredible responsibility we Americans have.

While Cambodia is technically a constitutional monarchy, it struggles with political integrity.  Corruption here is basically built into the system. It is commonplace, expected, and an understood part of life and work here, stemming into all parts of ordinary living.  It is rare to see the police or an ambulance, hospitals sometimes deny patients who don’t lay their money out on the table first, if price is right you can even pay for your college diploma, and though public school is technically free, the teachers are paid so little that students can only attend class if they bring some money each day to contribute to the salary (this is similar to other civil servants who are inadequately paid)… Corruption itself has a crippling effect on the growth of a country, it’s ability to serve the people efficiently and make decisions with much long-term vision or strategy.  So while Cambodia is a democracy, so long as corruption abounds, politicians and government workers will continue to (and in some cases must) place higher value on the dollar and power than the vote or the greater good.

Cambodia had its own elections this past summer, though it was not a surprise when the current ruling party struck home yet again. It was interesting hearing a few of my Cambodian friends compare their election experience to ours. A few of them came to the debates between Obama and McCain and were more engaged in it than some Americans.  They loved the idea of the two opponents laying out their ideas on the table, hashing out political arguments and taking questions from audience members. This is quite a contrast from the typical election scene of their country where the weight of your vote is commonly seen as useless against the powers that be. The collective power of voting often fades when the chances of political power changing hands is low. It isn’t necessarily straight out force or fraud that keeps these people in power.  Driving through the countryside, you see that almost every small and large town has Party’s offices and hubs.  Come election time, representatives set up shop to give out free rice, reminding uneducated farmers who they should be grateful to come election time. Typically, most of the supporters of the party come more from the populations in the provinces, not the cities.  But the members of the ruling elite do sometimes retain a mofia-like presence in Phnom Penh due to their depth of power, money, influence and, sometimes lack of consequence for breaking the law.  They drive around in huge black SUVs sans license plates, their teenagers go clubbing at the bars with a constant cloud of bodyguards closed in around them, their kindergarteners know that mommy usually keeps a gun in the trunk of the car.  They live in a world of incredible privilege, wealth and isolation. It’s a fascinating (and tragic) dichotomy to unravel.

So…while we American’s may complain about our system of government, our political leaders decisions, vetos and appointees, we ought to take a step back.  Our system isn’t perfect, and I’ve definitely done my fair share of criticizing (and will continue to).  But the beauty is that we CAN criticize. We can challenge our government and when it doesn’t work for us, we CAN use our votes and voices as leverage.  Our system allows for evolution.  Our elections CAN change things.  Our leaders CAN be held accountable, IF we hold them to their deeds.  It’s possible so long as we don’t get complacent and take our privileges for granted.

Cambodian Man who helped with Democrats Abroad and his kids on election day

Cambodian Man who helped with Democrats Abroad and his kids on election day


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