Cambodia Politics and Development

Wishful Thinking – Cambo Style

A government minister recently announced that a light rail train service would be running to the airport by next April. This impressed me as a lot like raising the flag for an idea and seeing if anybody salutes, except it’ll take a lot more than raising hands to construct a viable, functional rail line. The whole idea is ridden with breathlessly phantasmagorical absurdity. It’s not that a light rail line wouldn’t be a great idea and considering today’s traffic, a necessity for a smoothly functioning city, but to use the current single track now used by freight and long haul passengers, and build a new 1.5 kilometer track to connect to the airport and to do it all in 8 months… wow I’d sure be impressed. And if it actually did come together it’d be the cheesiest light rail line in existence.

In the first place, the track is extremely slow, it takes practically an hour for the long haul passenger train go the last 10 kilometers; part of the reason is that in one section people have set up market stalls on both sides of the track within inches of the trains going by. With 2 or 3 intermediate stops, it would take more than an hour to go the 9 kilometers from the PP train station to the airport, and that’s if there were no conflicts with the freight and long haul passenger trains. A single track means lots of waiting on sidings for trains to pass in the opposite direction. I’ll concede that it’d be better than nothing, though not by a whole lot. At least the government would be thinking about rail alternatives to deal with traffic.

A week after that announcement, the whole idea got upgraded to asking Japan for $800 million to build a skytrain. The airport is so close that a train running at 80 kph wouldn’t take ten minutes even with intermediate stops. Japan has given Cambodia $4.2 billion since 1992, so $800m in one shot doesn’t seem very likely.

A far more realistic solution that’d probably cost five or ten times less would be to double track the existing line and upgrade it for higher speeds. As I remember there’s plenty of room for another track along most of that stretch. It wouldn’t be able to go as fast but even if it only went at 50 kph it’d still get you to the airport in 15 minutes. It’s never preferable to mix local light rail trains with long haul trains, but it’d work fine in the interim and cut nearly an hour off of long haul timetables – Kampot to Phnom Penh in four hours rather than five. It could also be implemented in much less time than the skytrain. I’d guess 1½ to 2 years against 3 to 4 years to build a skytrain. Also asking Japan for $150 million or so is a lot more realistic.

As of August 15 the story has changed again. Japan has agreed to loan Cambodia the money, with long payback terms and low interest rates. Their experts will begin studying two or three possible routes. The same article in the Daily said that the Transportation Ministry was going to simultaneously develop the ground based train. Really? Spend millions on a ground based system that’ll be obsolete a year or two after it’s finished? I guess we’ll see… and maybe I’ll have to revise this story again before my deadline.

In other transportation news China has donated 100 used buses to enable new lines to be added to the three currently in operation. When the announcement was made the word was that the new lines would be operational within 6 weeks. Then a short time later, the ministry decided they probably should do a little planning first. Over the years several proposals for new lines have been made – I’ve see a couple different maps – but that’s not the same as actually making it happen. Once they settle on a route, they have to get out and decide where the stops need to go, then they need to design maps and finally build the stops: that doesn’t happen in six weeks. Once lines are set up, it’s expensive and difficult to change them, so it needs to be done right the first time. At least it’s finally getting done.

Back in 2000 Japan financed a pilot bus system, but at the end of the six month trial, the city wasn’t interested in providing the funds necessary to keep it going. Big bus systems always need subsidies. As I understand it, the current 3 line system requires a $1m per year subsidy. Sounds like a lot, but that’s less than the cost of 5 luxury SUVs of the kind that hundreds or thousands of public officials drive around.

The government is also expecting Japan to donate 180 buses. The timetable now for implementation is early next year with a total of ten lines running. Public transportation is essential for a big city. No matter how small motorbikes are, they still take up more street space than the equivalent number of people riding a full bus. They are safe; how many people are hurt riding city buses? They’re more comfortable with air-con and shelter from inclement weather. It’s also healthier not being in the traffic on a moto breathing exhaust. Public buses are a boon to low income people, as Phnom Penh’s buses allow riders to go long distances for 1500 riel – about 37 cents – giving them many more job and life possibilities. We expats look at the dollar or two it costs us to pay for moto transportation all the way across town as a pittance, but it’s a heavy burden to the many locals who earn $100 or $200 dollars a month. Yes they’re much slower, so motodops and tuk-tuk drivers will still have their customers, but a lot of people will take the bus when the system is more complete.

I’ve often wondered why a minibus system was never set up in Phnom Penh similar to the Philippines where jeepneys operate in big cities like Manila as well as the countryside. Manila has big buses and a train system as well as the minibuses. Minibuses cover the countryside here so it’s curious that they were never used in the capital. No matter, a real transit system is coming.

Speaking of wishful thinking a couple little tidbits in the August 3 edition of the Daily caught my eye. In one, two companies, one each from Malaysia and Cambodia announced they were going to build a $5 billion, 522 kilometer expressway from Phnom Penh to the Lao border and start construction by the end of the year. Bwahahahaha. Not only is $5b a shitload of money, but that area is very sparsely populated and one of the least likely places in the country to justify the expense in building an expressway. The transport ministry didn’t know anything about it and when the Daily checked it out, one of the two companies, the Malaysian one, had a one page website that made no mention of the project and they were unable to make contact with the other. Another pure fantasy.

The other tidbit was an announcement that a task force of local and national officials was being set up with the charge of solving the capital’s flooding problems. A Water Resources Ministry spokesperson was quoted saying the committee would take the results of the task force and stop the flooding…Bwahahahaha. Just about every person in Cambodia who doesn’t have a personal financial stake in filling in wetlands and lakes knows exactly what the problem is and what to do to begin fixing the problem: Stop It! Just Stop It!

Well okay, I’ll grant you that some people who are filling the city’s natural drainage areas with concrete actually believe what they’re doing is good for the city… after all a while back one of the city’s elite businessmen actually proposed developing the Olympic Stadium grounds with malls, condos and such saying the land was too valuable to be used only for recreation. And that’s the only substantial public space outside the riverside area in the whole city of 2 million people. The rich, as everywhere, are oblivious to the needs of commoners. They have their urban villas and country estates so they feel no loss when public parks or lakes are turned into concrete.

In other transportation news, the government has announced a plan to clear the city’s sidewalks for pedestrians, starting with major thoroughfares, which is long overdue as far as I’m concerned. It’s uncouth, uncivilized and dangerous to force people to walk in the street amongst cars and motos whizzing by.

It wasn’t that long ago (okay 7 or 8 years maybe) that a public official decided that the city was going to eliminate all the sidewalks since Cambodians didn’t like to walk anyway. On the contrary, plenty of Penhers like to walk, look at the thousands who saunter around the riverside every afternoon, it’s just that it’s now so uncomfortable and unpleasant that few have the incentive. A Khmer friend who visited Europe related how she greatly enjoyed walking there and was excited to return and walk in the capital but realized very quickly walking in PP was pure hassle and not worth it.

In fact, before the turmoil of the Khmer Rouge, encumbrance of the sidewalks was strictly forbidden. Since blocking sidewalks was a long tradition in Vietnam I assume it was during the time of their occupation that usurping public sidewalks for private use became common.

When I’m in the capital I do almost everything by walking because I have a fierce dislike of motorbikes and can’t imagine riding a bicycle there. Of course it’s terribly frustrating and frightening to be a lowly pedestrian dodging traffic, and very uncomfortable in many places because the sidewalks are so inconsistent. They go up and down – sometimes one will be 30 centimeters higher than the adjacent one – and sometimes are at a steep slant. If the city wants them to be used they need to establish standards so they all are built to the same level, with minimal slant. They should be angled only enough for rain to shed off. But at least it’s a start.

It might not be easy; more than once I’ve read that Bogota, capital of Columbia was having a terrible time getting the sidewalks cleared. When you consider it’s 3 times Phnom Penh’s size and Columbia has more than 3 times Cambodia’s population, it could be a challenge.

In Kampot I ride bicycle in the daytime and car at night. I would ride the bike at night at times if not for the dogs of midnight who terrorize anybody who comes near; they even bark at my car sometimes. The PM remarked recently in reference to the city’s heavy traffic that he didn’t want to restrict people from having cars, they’re starting to be middle class and want their autos. I agree, except he should also be looking at the developed world where the greater emphasis is on bicycles and walking. Everybody having cars is an interim phase. Rich countries encourage and facilitate bike use because they’re clean, quiet, healthy and take up little street space. Once the sidewalks are cleared, there’ll be many places where safe bikepaths would be possible.

Finally a few notes on Kampot. First, in the wishful thinking department a private firm has announced a $23 billion development on the coast. That’s more than the value of all the property in the city, maybe several times the value. Another figment of someone’s outsized imagination and a disaster if it ever really happened.

Also I have to mention the new international passenger port being constructed 9 kilometers south of town with $18m in Asia Development Bank funds. It’ll be designed to take people to Phu Quok and destinations in Cambodia like Sihanoukville, Koh Rong, Koh Kong. It’d be kinda nice to be able to go those places on the water, but they are confidently expecting an average 1000 people a day to use it in the first year, which seems quite outlandish to me. In the first place water travel tends to be expensive; the relatively short boat trip between S-ville and Koh Rong costs ten dollars. The first time I traveled between Koh Kong and S-ville in 2002 I took a boat as there was no road alternative: it was expensive and took a long time.

I’ve been wrong before, so maybe my pessimism is way off and thousands of people a day will be using it. I hope that doesn’t come to pass since who really needs all those extra people coming through? We already have lots of ‘refugees’ from S-ville settling here as well as a steady stream of people from all over the world seeking haven from the madding crowds. There’s an old saying that sums up the conundrum… If you find the perfect place, don’t stay because it won’t be perfect anymore. It happens all the time, as soon as a place is discovered it’s on the way to destruction. On the other hand, Kampot’s still a cool and pleasant place to be and the influx hasn’t yet changed it’s essential nature, but is there a tipping point?

I’m stuck almost whatever happens. I’ve been in the same rental house for 10 years and I’ve turned my little plot of land into an Eden, buying plants every month to add to my garden.

On another topic, a couple months ago the riverside strip suddenly was free of parked cars, well almost free, there were still a few scofflaws. I checked for signs, but saw none. The police somehow got the word out and almost everybody obeyed, even assuming that some of the cars didn’t have local owners. But just to be sure no good deed goes unpunished, the authorities have compensated for the improvement of the experience by erecting large –1.5 by 2 meter –lighted advertising signs every 30 or so meters all along the 3 kilometer riverside park. Tacky, ugly, trashy, tasteless and vulgar. Now in the old town section of the riverside park there are the garishly lit restaurant boats on one side and intrusive telecom ads on the other. Since the park, actually a promenade, is not very wide, it’s like you’re being bombarded with ugly.

In a final note: is up and running with local presenters several hours a day, including yours truly between 7 and 8 pm Monday through Thursday playing those good old tunes.


Cambodia Politics and Development, Phnom Penh, Uncategorized

Phnom Penh Traffic



The Cambodia Daily recently featured an article about the capital’s worsening traffic. A few years ago, or so it seemed, I marveled at how it only took 20 minutes to get to the airport from the river: it is, after all, only 9 kilometers. Today, more than an hour.

Phnom Penh’s traffic will never reach the astounding levels of Bangkok in 1993 when I lived there. It was before the first skytrain so all trips had to taken at street level. Traffic was so bad you never started a trip across town after 3pm unless you had no choice since it routinely took up to 4 hours to go as little as 10 kilometers. I’d regularly get off a bus a mile from my destination and make it there faster walking. A couple of times, when I had time to kill, I’d hang out and watch while traffic would come to a dead stop for nearly an hour, while cars and buses would be idling and continuously spewing out their exhausts.

There’s no such thing as a megacity the size of Bangkok with 12 million people without terrible traffic woes and overcrowded transit services, but a large part of Bangkok’s problems are the result of poor, actually nonexistent, planning. There are areas in the heart of the Sukumvit district loaded with high rise apartment buildings which are served only by narrow streets or alleys. Most often there’s only one exit to the main thoroughfare and there’re no connections between parallel streets. The amount of space devoted to streets in the city is half that of most cities. Mass transit systems are fabulously expensive to build, but because of the lack of street space in BKK, far more important. Residents of the city who are able to structure their lives close to mass transit get around fine, everybody else still has to contend with horrendous traffic jams.

Traffic in Singapore is not much of a problem, but it’s a special case. For one, it’s only got about 5 million people, an order of magnitude less difficult than a megacity. As an authoritarian government, it was able to wipe out large swaths of older (historic, in fact) areas with narrow streets in favor of very wide streets. Mostly, it uses taxation to severely limit the number of people who can afford to drive. You have to pay $75,000 to buy a permit to own a vehicle. Even in a relatively wealthy country that amount would preclude most people from car ownership. They’ve provided a fine mass transit system as a compensation, but still it’s unfair to design a society so only the rich can do something as pedestrian as owning a car. Also a reasonable urban population of 5m makes it possible with good planning and generous expenditures on infrastructure to run smoothly.

Megacities can never function smoothly, but a city of less than 2 million, such as Phnom Penh, did not need to get so bad. There are several reasons for the traffic slowdown in Phnom Penh; some are generic to growing cities, some self-inflicted. Among them are population growth and the expansion of the city’s area that almost inevitably accompanies that growth. Increase in income, which invariably results in increasing numbers of vehicles. Public policy which exacerbates the problem with poor planning.  Ignorance of or flouting of the basic rules of the road that hampers traffic flow combined with lack of enforcement of those rules. Lack of resources to build necessary infrastructure to ameliorate the situation is always a problem. Usurpment of public sidewalks requiring pedestrians to be out on the street dodging traffic also impedes flow.

Cities provide opportunity, that’s why they draw people in. That’s especially true of developing world cities since the countryside alternative has little opportunity and leaves people there in dire financial straits. That’s why Thais flocked to Bangkok in spite of the daily grind of spending so many hours stuck in traffic. And they still do in spite of the difficulty of living there… it may not be as bad as the 1990s, but still a hassle.

Income has been growing very fast in Cambodia, one of the ten fastest growing economies in the world in the last decade. Thus the surge in car and motorbike registrations. A private vehicle is especially important in a city like Phnom Penh with its nearly absent public transportation system. Without restricting car ownership like Singapore does, there’s nothing that can be done about increasing numbers of vehicles, though a comprehensive public bus system would help.

Expanding population not only increases the number of trips taken proportionally to the expansion but also makes the length of the average trip longer. So, for instance, a doubling of urban population probably triples the number of kilometers traveled. While roads in the outskirts of the city can be designed wide enough to carry substantial traffic, it’s extremely expensive to widen streets to accommodate the additional traffic in a built up city, especially one as dense as Phnom Penh.

Taking the above two together, the city is in a bind before any possible action is taken to ameliorate the problem. Unfortunately, many actions taken by the government have seriously worsened traffic, though in some cases they actually thought they were improving the situation. The prime example is the trading of inner city public buildings which in many cases were old and inefficient for new buildings on the city’s outskirts. They thought that placing them at a distance would reduce congestion, whereas exactly the opposite is true.

Before you had small buildings in low density, campus like settings in or close to the heart of the city. Most people who had business to do in those places lived relatively close. Now with those facilities far from the center, 90% have to travel farther, adding lots of kilometers to the city’s traffic. Public servants have had many complaints about the additional time and cost involved in getting to work. It also turned business with the government into a hardship for many since the absence of public transportation has meant high transportation costs for those who don’t own vehicles.

As campuses many had large areas of pervious surfaces; that is, places where rain could be absorbed into the ground rather than sent to the city’s overloaded drainage system.  Every hard rain now causes flooding and traffic chaos because many of those areas are now high density, with no onsite drainage. There was on street parking by those campuses, easing the parking burden. Much of the new development has brought increased traffic in more congested spaces. So a lose-lose situation.

Park spaces are oases of calm and allow for unimpeded traffic flow on their borders. Thus the multiple negative impacts of the recent filling in of 16 hectares of wetlands in the Olympic stadium grounds. First of course is the loss of water storage and the likelihood of increased flooding. The wetlands formerly drained the entire stadium area, now all that goes to an inadequate drainage system. A former green, calm and cooling spot is being replaced by a large, dense development that’ll attract thousands of vehicles a day into one of the most crowded parts of the city.

High density development is fine. Actually, in cases where the transportation infrastructure exists to accommodate that density, it’s a good idea. If there was a mass transit stop there, then sure, great idea (although never at the expense of a public green space).

The city is doing what it can to speed the flow of traffic with the construction of flyovers. They eliminate points of congestion, but can only go so far. It’s a great feeling speeding over cross traffic, but then you’re stuck in the same jam as soon as you descend to street level a minute later. The only way to move large numbers of vehicles in an urban environment is with freeways, limited access highways, but they are fabulously expensive and would be highly destructive of the city’s fabric. One measure that could be undertaken and should be a priority is a freeway circling the city that would allow vehicles passing through the urban area that don’t have business within it to bypass the congested inner city. It still would be far too expensive for the government’s current finances, but at least one should be in the planning process and land acquisition begin.

One very important proposal that came out of the above mentioned article was train service to the airport. The track already exists except for the last little distance to the airport itself. The trip from the train station on Monivong to the airport would take as little as 10 to 15 minutes and interim stops along the way would remove a lot of vehicles from the streets. However, even with existing track and right-of-way, it still would cost $180 million. Infrastructure for a modern city, whether road or rail oriented, is never cheap but essential if the city wants to avoid extreme traffic like Bangkok.

Except for the airport train, mass transit for Phnom Penh is on fantasy level. Without someone throwing billions of dollars at the government, it ain’t gonna happen. Meanwhile it makes no sense to even talk about mass transit until the city has a functioning bus system. That’s something that could’ve happened long ago and while every urban bus system in my knowledge needs public subsidies, it wouldn’t be all that much and should’ve been a priority all along.

A bus loaded to capacity takes up less street space than the number of motorbikes needed to transport the same number of people. The government has been trying for years to get someone to build a bus system and then operate it at no charge to the city… never happen. There are three bus lines now when the city needs twenty. There are supposed to be 10 more by the end of the year. Whatever the cost, it doesn’t equal the benefits that’d accrue. Unfortunately, even with new bus lines, traffic wouldn’t change much, it’s just growing too fast. It would however, keep the situation from deteriorating even faster.

The next transportation priority after the airport train would be to build a modern bus terminal next to the train station. That way people could zip into town from the airport and have buses on hand to complete their journeys to their destinations around the country. Now it’s just chaos with separate bus stations all over town. A single bus terminal would be a boon to travelers since you’d have many competing companies in the same place. That’d be especially beneficial in having many different schedules; that is, buses leaving to your destination much more often. When I was at the central bus terminal in Kuala Lumpur, vendors were discounting tickets in competition for my last minute seat.

All advanced cities today are building bike lanes and other facilities to make biking easier and more enjoyable. Something like half of all trips in Amsterdam are on bicycle, by any standard a better idea than trying to accommodate all movement on motorized vehicles. Bicycles are nearly silent, pollution free and provide a healthy alternative transportation mode.

It’d be very difficult in most parts of the city to make special places for bicycles. Other places it’d not be that difficult; the park strips, the river would be relatively easy places to start. Norodom Boulevard has very wide sidewalks which could easily accommodate separated bike paths. I ride bicycle every day in Kampot, but I would never consider doing that in the capital, except maybe on Sunday morning when there’s hardly any traffic.

Sidewalks are another essential ingredient to improving traffic flow. Having pedestrians dodging vehicles and competing for street space with them is a terrible idea: it’s dangerous and uncomfortable for pedestrians and impedes flow. A friend took his Khmer wife to Europe for a holiday where she greatly enjoyed walking. She was eager to walk when she got back to Phnom Penh but quickly soured on the idea in the face of the many barriers to enjoyable walking here. Blocking sidewalks, usurping them for private use was not allowed before the Khmer Rouge. It was only later under the Vietnamese occupation that the practice became widespread.

It’s now so entrenched, it’ll be very difficult to change. Still even when the city does go through lengths to make walking comfortable, as in the remodeling of Street 130, there’s no enforcement of the rules and it quickly regresses back to the old form. People liked the new system, but within a short time owners were blocking the sidewalks again with the police either not caring or incompetent. What gets me the most is the inability of the government to keep the sidewalks on Sisowath clear. I could hardly believe it last time I was there. I saw a car parked on the sidewalk totally blocking it and another car perpendicular on the curb with no space in between: people had no choice but to be out in the middle of a busy traffic lane. It’s uncivilized and totally out of place in a city that has pretensions of modernity.

As final note on sidewalks: Before the KR, in addition to sidewalks being totally clear, they were built as a unit on one level. Even if they were clear today, it’d still often be a hassle using them since you’re constantly going up and down and some are built at relatively steep angles. In other words, construction is totally uncoordinated and at the whim of the property owner. It can’t be that difficult to make rules for sidewalk construction. It’s the baby stroller or hand truck rule: If it’s inconvenient for them it’s improperly designed.

One additional factor that makes walking inconvenient is the confusion in Cambodia between curb cuts and driveways. Curb cuts are for intersections between streets and require two changes in grade. A driveway keeps the sidewalk at the same level: there’s a relatively steep rise between the street and sidewalk for vehicles, that in fact slows them down while crossing the sidewalk, a good thing. What should be driveways are turned into curb cuts which speeds vehicles and discomforts pedestrians.

Finally, getting drivers to learn and obey basic rules of right-of-way is no-brainer. When you are making a right turn and you have someone cutting the corner making a left and he/she gets right in your path, it becomes an absurd situation.

Phnom Penh is in a bind trafficwise. Everything the city might do to improve the situation, within its financial constraints, will be outweighed by growth of population and wealth and the densifying effects of the city’s push to develop every possible vacant space. Nothing suggested here will solve the traffic problem, it can only get worse. At best these suggestions will only keep congestion from getting even that much worse… still a good thing.





Cambodia Politics and Development, Kampot, Cambodia

Kompot Writers and Readers Festival + Condo Bubblemania


The four day Kampot Writers and Readers Festival which ran from November 5 to 8 was a great success. From flash idea to fruition in 2 months, Julien Poulson, Robert Starkweather and Wayne McCallum put on an impressive event and hopefully put Kampot on a literary path. There were nearly 50 events spread out over 14 venues and dozens of supporting businesses or institutions.

The inspiration came from the long running Ubud Writers and Readers Festival in Bali, Indonesia. That one’s been going for 12 years: the latest iteration has 200 events in 50 locations and features 25 authors from around the world but mostly from Indonesia. Ubud’s population is about 30,000 so it’s a bit smaller than Kampot, which now has about 40 to 50,000 people. It’s fair to assume then that Kampot probably has the ability to ramp up its festival to Ubud’s level. It’d be great to see Kampot become a literary outpost, a center of intellectual pursuits. That would/could possibly counter the trend towards pure growth and development.

While most attendees and presenters were expats an effort was made to include as many Cambodians as possible. This country does not have a literary tradition. There’s very little in the way of Khmer fiction and most of that is dime romance novels. Hopefully this festival has helped to engender an interest in reading amongst the local population.

Most of the literary events were focused on Cambodians so I didn’t interject myself as a writer, mostly because my work isn’t related to Cambodia. There are quite a few other expat writers based in Kampot and Cambodia, so it’d be good to get us connected even if we don’t write specifically about Cambo. I’ll bring up the subject for next year’s festival.

All the events I attended or witnessed were crowded, standing room only. It was quite a shock, actually, to see so many people interested in these dry, intellectual, not very exciting topics, at least not what you think of as exciting. Part of the reason for the multitudes was a holiday and three day weekend, so Phnom Penhers came in droves for respite from the madding crowds of the big city as well as being motivated to come for the festival. It’s estimated that 500 people attended the events. Of course, as with anything so new and ambitious, there were scheduling glitches and some events that attracted few people. Still an impressive bit of organization under any standard.

The music events were big draws. The opening ceremony featured traditional Khmer music and took place at the Kampot Traditional Music School which is specially oriented towards disabled children.

Tantrei is a new rooftop bar with a great view and relaxed décor. It’s double wide shophouse space with lots of room for a platform on one side of the room, cushions on the floor in another and a band stage in the center. It’s a perfect spot for music and Saturday night the Shabbab, a band from Australia, rocked a packed crowd – maybe 150 people – to noisy rock-n-roll. I was impressed: all those millennials jumping up and down in wild abandon to old-metally-sounding tunes. The lead singer, a runt of a guy, ramped himself into a frenzy of kinetic energy, it was pure charisma. It’s not my preferred music, but when it comes to dancing, a land sight better than that weird melody-less house music, or repetitive techno, or DJs wrecking the rhythm with all those sliding wha-whas.

The Sunday street party included seven 30 minute acts, broken only by 10 minute breaks, with Paul Kelly, the headliner, slated for an hour. The schedule was disrupted by a power outage brought on by a lightening storm which lasted about 30 minutes. Unfortunately that resulted in a truncated set for Kelly, who only had time for 4 songs before the party was shut down at 10 pm. The Khmer always play past 10 so I’m not sure why a 10 pm end was necessary or agreed to.

I’d never hear of Kelly, but an Aussie friend assured me he was their equivalent to Neil Young. I’m often surprised by the contrast between what an artist looks like and the energy they can put out. Kelly is an ordinary, even mousy looking guy, but when he plays he’s all force and charisma. He was really good. He reminds me of French author Michel Houllenbecq, who plays himself in a recent movie called The Kidnapping of Michel Houllenbecq. While his books are raw, intimate and sexy, the guy is himself totally lacking in sex appeal. Quite a contrast.

All in all a job well done and looking forward to next year.

Condo Bubblemania

Cambodia’s real estate and construction industries contributed more to GDP last year than the garment and footwear sector. With that boom has come surging residential property values, up 14% in the first six months of 2015, the highest growth among 13 major Asian cities. The condo boom has been central to that surge. Recent changes to property law allow foreigners to purchase property as long as it’s not the ground floor and the one restriction I’m aware of is that no more than 70% of units in any one building can be foreign owned.

That limit is being reached in new condo projects since 60% to 70% of buyers are non-citizens. And a crucial point to consider is that most buyers, including locals, are buying for speculation, intending to rent them out and expecting values to rise. Those heady visions of big returns have been brought on by the current very tight market which is seeing large returns on investment for condo builders.

But where are the people to actually live in them? Prices for new condos range around $2000 to $3000 per square meter or $200,000 to $300,000 for 100 square meters. That’s a lot of money for not a very big apartment. Here’s a rule of thumb for true property value as opposed to speculative value. The property should be able to bring in rent equal to 1% of the purchase price per month. Under that scenario you’d get your money back in about 8 1/2 years. Add maintenance, occasional vacancies and other costs It’d probably take about 10 years to get your money back. That’s before a cent of profit on your investment.

So $2000 to $3000 per month for an average sized apartment. Whose going to pay that when you can rent a large villa in the center of town for that money? Maybe Chinese, Singaporeans, Koreans who are used to living in high rises will be attracted to that lifestyle, but Khmers? With current rental prices you’d be lucky to get 1/2% per month stretching your payback to 20 years. Sure, if you think someone else is going to be even sillier than you and pay even more for it in a few years, then you’ll be fine. And maybe in that few years time rich people from all over the world will descend on the capital eager to live in high rise apartments and rents will go way up. Two to Three thousand a month for a middling apartment is no big deal in London or New York, maybe Phnom Penh is next.

Unfortunately for pie-in-the-sky investors, there are storm clouds on the horizon, since the number of condos available is going to increase 13 fold in the next two years. It’s extremely difficult to imagine that that flood of new units won’t blow out the market. Maybe it’ll be akin to China’s ghost cities and eventually, five or ten years down the line people will line up to live in them, but meanwhile…

The other plank to the construction boom is in retail space. Even while older malls are closing down or looking all forlorn and semi-abandoned, the sector will double in space in two years time. There’s no way the demand can accommodate that much new space, not by any stretch in the next two years.

Much of the new development is happening on land that was formerly public park land, lakes or open space, and as such the city’s desirability will dive. You can not have a city – at least not a world class city that people will actually want to live in, as opposed to being there because economic need requires it – with a few green strips in one part of town and an oppressive, unbroken sea of development in the rest. In one of the most egregious cases of crimes against green space, 16 hectares of ponds which once absorbed all the rain that fell at Olympic Stadium, are currently being tricked out with condos and malls. Models show an Olympic stadium looking all lonely and dejected because it’s totally boxed in by glitzy retail and high rises.

Booms do have some good points since even if the new construction never gets occupied, there’s still a lot of people who’ve gotten jobs building them. Also since most of the money is coming from outside, those sizable investments offer a big boost to the economy. Another category of winners are those people who bought property back when it was dirt cheap. At $3000 to $6000 per square meter – the current value in Phnom Penh – the money adds up fast.

Booms, unfortunately often presage busts. When the crash happens a lot of people will lose their jobs, those who bought high will suffer big losses and the city skyline will be left with strange empty skeletons of failed grand plans. In the run-up to the peak as property values are skyrocketing, you have long time businesses booted out of their premises by outrageous rent rises and workers forced out of their central locations to live far from work with the expense and hassle that entails.

The fundamental problem is that the wealthy have too much money. They don’t know what to do with it. Interest rates in safe developed countries are very low so they search the world for opportunities. Cambodia is easy to invest in, it’s welcoming, fast and convenient to bring big projects to fruition, there aren’t any zoning regulations and building codes are sketchily enforced. Not that I suggest the new developers are erecting less than quality buildings, just that there’s little hassle in the process.

Booms hit average people hardest. Rents in desirable cities far surpasses the common folk’s ability to pay. The average house price in San Francisco is $1mil, while a small one room studio apartment goes for upwards of $2000 month. Meanwhile there are lots of people doing shit jobs for lousy wages and spending more than half their incomes on rent and they’re often forced to travel long distances to work.

The presence of all that excess dough sets the stage for steep property rises. Life for the bottom 80% would be much easier and simpler if the rich weren’t bidding up the price of property. That applies to Cambodia as well.

It’s a result of the transfer of wealth from the bottom 80% to the top 1% that conservatives have brought about since the Reagan, Thatcher years. It’s all part of the plan to throw money at the wealthy in the provably false belief that enough will trickle down to the bottom to improve everyone’s lives. Unfortunately, it never works that way. Just enough trickles down to keep the bottom on a wage-slave and/or student debt treadmill. State and local governments around the US have decided it’s better to give tax breaks or keep taxes low for the wealthy than support higher education, so that tuition has risen far faster than inflation and student loan debt is now more than credit card debt.

To put the whole thing in perspective, Democratic candidate for president Bernie Sanders is proposing free tuition for all people attending public institutions. That would cost about $62 billion a year. Now Bill Gates is worth about $80b, Warren Buffet about $60b, the Koch brothers about $100b, the five Walton’s $140b. Added up you have $380b, enough to pay for that program for 5 years while still leaving almost $70b for those few filthy rich to continue living their lives of fabulous wealth. That’s just 9 Americans. The next 30 could probably do the same. I’m only saying that the money’s there, it’s only the political will that’s missing. Everybody benefits when everybody who could benefit from higher education has the opportunity to go.

In a developing country like Cambodia, trickle down works differently because almost any job provides a better income than what those worker’s would have living back in the family’s rice farm. So good for them but the city will suffer with loads of high rise skeletons or empty buildings. The drop in property values with the bust will make a lot of people feel a lot poorer. It will also make it harder for many Cambodians to pay their micro finance loans, which now are at record highs. As long as everything is booming, those loans are easy to pay… relatively anyway: it’s always easier to borrow than pay back. While it’s great that average Cambodians have access to money when they need it, the process of large numbers of people defaulting will create chaos in the economy.

In the end result it’s always better to grow slowly and thoughtfully than run headlong into a certain crash, but that’s the way it’s done almost everywhere in the world so one can hardly fault Cambo.

There’s one other possible fly in the economic ointment, that of political stability. The PM seems to be running scared. Though it’s still more than 2 1/2 years till the next general election, he’s pulling out all the stops in harassing the opposition and making hard-to-believe statements like electing the opposition will bring back the Khmer Rouge, cause a civil war, etc. Without massive repression, the opposition will not stand idly by. A lot of Cambodians are tuned into social media and are familiar on a momentary basis with what’s happening in the streets. I would guess that hardly anybody outside the most loyal CPP partisans agrees with the party’s recent actions, it’s only succeeding in turning more people against them.

Investors are spooked by instability and it looks like we may be heading for a period of unrest. There’s no doubt that the PM has the power to stay in office no matter the outcome of a free election or the will of the people. If he loses the next election, as seems likely, will he choose power with repression or stand down gracefully and let the country move on?


Moving Day

The government recently announced plans to expand the National Museum in Phnom Penh by taking over the campus of the Royal University of Fine Arts, which occupies about half the block the museum is on, and move it to the Chroy Changvar peninsula. The last time a part of RUFA was moved to the north of town in Sen Sok district, enrollment plummeted. They lost 2/3rds of their student body. There isn’t any public transit to the area so students without their own motorbikes will have to spend five to ten dollars a day to hire motos, totally prohibitive for the average student. And even if public buses become available in the future, getting to school could take a long time, especially if a student lived south of town.

The planned RUFA move comes after a long line of relocation of government facilities to the outskirts of town. It’s a concept that was pushed by the PM. There are several reasons why that is a bad idea, though there is, at least in government eyes, some justification.

The government gets new modern facilities on spacious plots of land in exchange for buildings that are or were, in many cases, outmoded, inadequate and sometimes decrepit. The private company gets very valuable city center land to develop. However the costs are many, including the fact that it’s a fundamentally bad idea in terms of city planning. As one who majored in Urban Studies and has had a life long interest in planning it’s patently obvious how dysfunctional the concept is so it came as quite a surprise a few years back when a friend questioned my take on the matter.

Public facilities need to be centrally located so the maximum number of citizens can access them within the shortest possible trips. The further people have to go take care of public business, the greater their personal cost and the cost to the city of increased traffic. When you take public facilities located in the heart of town where a large majority of citizens can access them in a few minutes of travel and place them at the edge of town where the vast majority of citizens have to go long distances to get there, it becomes a hardship on them and is an impediment to taking care of public business.

The dysfunction would be clearer if Phnom Penh had an adequate transit system: In that case you‘d see a circle in the center of town crisscrossed with transit lines then long fingers extending from the circle to the edges of the urban area with few connections outside the circle. Getting into the circle would be relatively easy, whereas getting to Sen Sok, where most public facilities have moved to, at the end of one bus line on the north of town would be a big hassle for almost everybody.

It’s not just the citizens who lose, the workers and bureaucrats also have many complaints in that regard, since they have the same burden of extra cost, time and the hassle of travel. Those who own cars can spend a lot of money getting to work and back when the round trip is 20 kms or more. Fortunately, there’s been some backtracking on the idea. The former governor of Seam Reap relocated public buildings to a new center almost 20 kms from town to complaints from everybody involved. The new governor is moving them back where they belong, at least a lot closer. Also, there will supposedly be no more land exchanges in Phnom Penh in response to public complaints.

The damage has already been done in terms of congestion and inconvenience, but there’s another factor to consider. Most of the sold-off centrally located facilities were old-style, low density campus type developments. In other words, they gave the city breathing space and often had absorbent surfaces so that rainwater could percolate into the ground. All of them that I’m aware of have either been replaced by high-density buildings or at minimum have been paved over so that rainwater that previously could be taken care of on site is now diverted into the city’s inadequate drainage system.

The former T-3 prison site at Streets 13 and 154, is just such a case and provides a perfect example of poor planning and lack of foresight. It’s adjacent to an area that experiences some of the city’s worst flooding. Since it was traded of to a prominent local businessman, the entire area has been paved so that all of the rainwater that now falls on the former prison site is sent to the drainage system which overloads with every heavy rain.

In addition to exacerbating flooding problems in the area it has been turned into a parking lot and repository of buildings that range from non-descript to trash: an ugly eyesore close to the center of the city’s entertainment and cultural district. The owner may eventually place buildings of value there, but now it’s as good as derelict.

However, getting back to the RUFA move, there’s still an opportunity to right those urban wrongs. The T-3 site would make a perfect spot for a new campus to enable the university to remain in the heart of the city where it belongs. It would also, if the development plans included flood mitigation, go very far in improving the area’s drainage problems. It would also add greenery to a city that’s becoming ever denser and more concrete. Yes it’s near the riverside, but there’s not much that’s green there and it’s packed every afternoon because there are so few public places for people to enjoy the outdoors.

Needless to say land in the area is far more valuable now than when it was sold off some time ago so it wouldn’t be an easy task to raise the money to buy it back for the people. Sometimes to do it right and correct past mistakes it costs big money… anyway China is always willing to part with some of its trillions if it means currying favor, and Cambodia is always glad to oblige by backing China up, so the money should be no problem.

The new campus is planned on land owned by the government so if minimizing cost is the primary factor then relocating there makes sense, but not if enrollment crashes in the process. It also seems a bit counterproductive in the long run to expand the museum to accommodate increasing visitor numbers, while shortchanging the future of the arts in Cambodia by severely cutting back on the number of young people studying it.

Another factor in the way land has been swapped is the extreme opacity of the deals. This is exemplified by the Beung Kak lake project. It took a full two years after the deal was announced before anybody outside the main participants could figure out who the land had been sold to; the government was silent. Ownership was discovered through a Chinese language web site, since the local owner had partnered with a Chinese firm.

All deals were done with no citizen input whatever, not to mention being against the wishes of the civil servants involved. Many times there was no advance warning of impending moves. Often it was like: This building has been traded off to a private firm and you have a week or two to pack up your office and move.

Another factor is the likelihood of kickbacks and corruption in the awarding of contracts. With Cambodia ranked 156 out of 178 countries in Transparency International’s corruption perception index, no one would be surprised if a lot of dark money changed hands. However, regardless of the possible presence of under-the-table money in the process, it’s still entirely plausible to think the officials involved believed that the changes they were directing were beneficial to the city. I give them some benefit of the doubt.

As for corruption, there’s no doubt it runs through all sectors of public life. The question is whether Sam Rainsy and his Cambodian National Rescue Party would’ve done things differently and whether in the long run his party would turn out to be any less corrupt.

An anecdote comes to mind that isn’t directly related to corruption, but still makes you ponder. A few years ago the son of a wealthy Sam Rainsy legislator was driving his Lexus SUV drunkenly down Street 51 in the bar area. In the process he sideswiped two or three motorbikes. Instead of apologizing as any normal person would do, he became irate and started haranguing the moto drivers who happened to be in his way and demanded that one of them get on his hands and knees and crawl through his legs.
The guy wasn’t going to take it. Heated arguments ensued and unfortunately for the rich kid the guy was an armed undercover cop and shot him dead. The father was quoted later as saying he didn’t deserve to die for that. I agree, nobody should die just for being an arrogant asshole, but I also admit it did make you feel good that at least one rich elitist bastard got his comeuppance. And how on earth could he raise his son to be such a rotten, lousy human being?

Apropos that incident, the PM once remarked that Cambodia’s upper crust really should treat the common people with more respect, or else they might have to deal with another rebellion. One of the motivations of the KR was to create an egalitarian society. The citizenry had been treated with such contempt and indifference to their needs and aspirations by Cambodia’s elite, it was natural for people to gravitate towards the concept of a more equal society.

It does seem likely that the opposition would be less corrupt, even from the fact that they’d be new at it and it might take some time to get their corruption learning curve up to speed. Whenever a government has been entrenched for so long – the PM’s been in power now for 30 years – there’s a tremendous inertia that holds back the effort in tackling corruption.

The country’s ACU, Anti-Corruption Unit, has fingered quite a few wrongdoers, but they’re generally people in disfavor with the government. Sometimes the ACU’s deference to those on the CPP’s good side becomes ridiculous. An NGO that provides bed nets reported a while back that the top ministry official had taken half million dollars in bribes from net providers. When pressed on the matter the head of the ACU said he wasn’t planning on charging him. Bribery okay for some, evidently. The bribe didn’t reduce the amount of money that went to purchase nets, but still.

With the adoption of the ACU law, all lawmakers were required to submit an accounting of their assets, except they were in sealed envelopes that would only be opened in case of an investigation. They could put anything in those envelopes, who would know the difference? I almost sympathize with them: If everybody’s been doing it forever, you’d almost want an amnesty for past wrongs except in the most egregious situations. Amnesty, disclosure, then closely watched from then on. Regardless of how they got the money, it’s still essential that assets be disclosed. China puts people in prison just for campaigning on the issue of disclosure. China’s president Xi Jinping has also been on an anti-corruption campaign, but very similar to Cambodia, when you look closely at who’s been targeted, it’s almost always political enemies or merely competitors. Clean hands there is hard to imagine.

The PM recently challenged Rainsy to a lightning oath. Rainsy has to ask the gods to strike him down if he lied about the CPP committing fraud in the last election and the PM for his part asks for the lightning bolt if he cheated. Silly stuff, but typical for someone in office so long: They say anything that comes to mind because they’ve not had to deal with checks or questions on their rule.

For certain, the opposition CNRP has begun to challenge the PM on a host of matters. It’s not so easy anymore to hide behind secret, opaque budgets and lawmaking. How Hun Sen reacts will make all the difference in the next election. He calls people who fought back against brutal security guards in last year’s election protests as fomenting insurrection and farmers fighting back against the loss of their land as secessionists… 300 hundred poor families want to have their own country? You don’t make friends that way. Meanwhile Rainsy continues to scapegoat Vietnamese for many of Cambodia’s ills and stains his potential with racism.

The country will face a difficult decision in the next election in 2018, though I think the desire for change, in spite of the opposition’s glaring faults, will outweigh the PM’s accomplishments – stability, growth, improved infrastructure, reduction in poverty.

Cambodia Politics and Development

Culture of Dialogue

The Prime Minister and his opposition counterpart, Sam Rainsy, are touting a new era of competition without rancor or inflammatory speech, a Culture of Dialogue. This all seems to have come out of last year’s accord which ended the opposition’s boycott of parliament and near daily demonstrations and the disruptions and conflict they caused. Political campaigns without lies, distortions and rank stupidity, would certainly be a blessing for Cambodia and most everywhere, really.

As part of the detente, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has agreed to not use phrases like communist dictator, Vietnamese puppet, leader of the thieves, national traitor and such. They also agreed to not use the term Yuon to refer to Vietnamese, nullifying somewhat their main campaign plank; that is, hostility towards the country’s Vietnamese residents. For its part the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has to refrain from threatening arrest of opponents or bringing up images of civil war. Either way, it’d be great for campaigns to feature real issues over empty but insulting rhetoric.

To that end Sam Rainsy has had to pressure is number two in command, Kem Sokha, to tame his speech, like when he recently called Hun Sen a communist, an absurd and ridiculous statement. It’s true that he was a Khmer Rouge soldier until he defected early on and was originally installed by the communist Vietnamese, but the connection stops there.

However, it’s fair to say he has an affinity for the Viets so for instance he sends back Montagnard asylum seekers without allowing them the right to asylum hearings, a terrible policy in light of Cambodia’s many former refugees. On the Vietnamese side of the bargain they provide more than half of Cambodia’s electricity in spite of having power supply issues themselves.

Economically the CPP couldn’t be more pro business and pro big-time development. While the record of growth under the CPP has been impressive and indicators of social progress – reduced poverty and child mortality, increased education and income – have all improved, very large swathes of both urban and rural poor have been uprooted and harmed by his economic policies. The number is so large that a great many Cambodians have been impacted or know someone who has. I wonder sometimes who the PM thinks will vote for him after alienating so many of his countrymen.

While the PM has accomplished a lot in macroeconomics, his development policy, which favors large scale urban development tailored to the middle class, has questionable sustainability: Where are all those relatively rich people going to come from? Camko City, being built on a former lake in the city’s north has five completed buildings but only one has any people living it. There aren’t enough Cambodians to fill all those luxury apartments in the many vast developments that are planned or under construction, not to mention I doubt if Cambodians who can afford them really want to live in high-rise apartments, and living in Cambodia for outsiders is an acquired taste, not for the masses, so I believe there’s a bubble building in real estate values.

The filling in of Boeng Kak lake, which displaced 3000 families, has so far accomplished nothing, only one structure has been built and no work is now being done. The leaseholder, a CPP official, hasn’t been able to secure the financing to do anything there, there’s no market, or rather not sufficient market to justify construction.

I can understand the government’s mall mentality, though I personally find malls ghastly (Of necessity I’ll mall it on occasion but they give me the heebie-jeebies.) but it’s the international standard for development, so the PM can hardly be blamed for following the trends. Unfortunately there seems to be too many, they’re not doing well, the market just isn’t there.

To me the darkest part of current development is that much of what’s being developed is on former lakes, parks or green spaces. So we have a duel blow to livability: an ever denser and crowded city with less green space to lessen the burden of living in that dense environment.

The lake, for instance, could’ve been developed as a jewel of a recreation space – there was once boating there – without displacing anyone. That could’ve been done by filling in just enough of the lake’s periphery to build a circular road with 50 or 100 meters of park space between the road and the water. Lakeside property is intrinsically very valuable so parts of it would have quickly developed and been done for differing income levels, instead of the ‘luxury’ plans which (hopefully) probably will never get built.

It’s not too late: the sand that was used to fill the lake could easily be removed to recreate a lake and park there. Construction sand is in high demand so there’s no problem with what to do with it. The question is what Sam Rainsy would do differently. Did he oppose the filling of the lake? I don’t remember him speaking out on the subject. He has shown sympathy for people displaced by development, but I’m not convinced that isn’t just a political stance and that his policies would be different. That feeling is based on his backing the garment workers during the last election in their push for a $160 minimum wage, which was double the then existing $80 wage (it’s now $130). Sure that would’ve been great for the workers, but a leader, rather than a campaigner, has to resist the pressure to raise wages too quickly, else large numbers of factories leave for cheaper locations, people lose their jobs and the economy suffers.

The Sokha hotel just built on the tip of the Chroy Changvar peninsula provides another example; it was formerly 48 hectares of public park, a perfect spot for a natural park, something that simply doesn’t exist today in Phnom Penh. The city has park strips and promenades, but nothing like a real park with trails connecting grassy areas, ponds, mini-forests of old trees. Instead the city got a non-descript, cookie-cutter hotel. The riverside walkway was widened, but in no way does that compensate for loss of green space.

About one percent of the city’s land area is in parks, a dismal number even by Asian standards, and that includes traffic islands which people can look at but not access. American cities, including very dense New York, typically have about 10% in park space. As far as I can tell, there are no plans for future parks in or around the city. There still are large areas in both public and private hands that could be used to create parks, so it’s not too late to change course.

Then there’s Olympic Stadium. The government has been whittling away at that public space for years. In the latest insult, 16 hectares of ponds and wetlands, which famed Cambodian architect Van Molyvann designed into the area to absorb all of the rain that falls there, has been lost for more malls. And the rain which once was kept on premises is now diverted to an inadequate drainage system, with frequent flooding ensuing. A prominent local businessman suggested that Olympic stadium was too valuable to be a recreation spot and should be developed, adding insult to injury. Where is Rainsy on the subject? It wouldn’t surprise me if the PM went along with developing the area, but I haven’t heard him weigh in on the matter either.

The government thinks development is exclusively bricks and mortar: in addition to park space, what about community centers, public swimming pools, tennis and basketball courts, football pitches?

Then there’s the CPPs aggressive distribution of land to agribusiness concessions with the displacement of large numbers of residents. Currently about 10% of the country’s land area has been sold off to plantation development. Lately there’s been some movement towards letting current residents keep their relatively small holdings. What’s the big deal about letting farmers keep their few hundred hectares in a 10,000 hectare plantation?

Once again the PM is only following a development plan being pushed by international bankers and agencies. You can find plantation concessions all over the developing world. In some cases what they’re doing sounds worse in parts of Africa where much larger plantations are displacing many more people.

Is Rainsy opposed to agribusiness plantation development? Does his sympathy and backing of the demands of dislocated people carry all the way to totally shelving that business model? Once again it’d be great to have an election based on debating real issues.

The opposition (CNRP) was formed out of a merger of Sokha’s Human Rights Party and Rainsy’s eponymous Sam Rainsy Party with the realization that they had a much better chance of unseating Hun Sen working together than separately. They came very close to unseating the PM, which I’m sure came as a shock to him. In fact, he’s warned the opposition, in spite of his promising not to invoke war and conflict, not to think they can take advantage of him if they should win the next election saying he’ll still have his personal bodyguard unit, which in reality constitutes a private army of thousands of loyal soldiers. The real news in his statement is his recognition of the possibility of losing and his suggestion that he would simply stand down if he lost; just a couple years ago he said he planned to stay in office for decades more and many people still question whether he actually would accept defeat. He undoubtedly could stage a military coup so it’s good to hear him say he’ll abide by a democratic result. I personally believe he’d rather leave with the legacy of a democrat who stepped down than a coup leader in power by force.

For his part Sam Rainsy was deluded in thinking he could topple the PM in an Arab Spring style revolt. For one thing, those deposed leaders were all true dictators who stayed in power through disappearance, torture and murder. They kept secret police who were ready to pounce on anyone voicing disapproval of their leadership. That does not apply to Hun Sen. Moreover, even if the vote was rigged to some extent, it’s still clear that about half the electorate did vote for him. You don’t create revolution when only half the people are for it, it has to be a mass uprising coming from mass rejection of the leader. Finally, there’s no way the PM was going to give up power after winning the election, however flawed.

Probably the most important achievement of Rainsy’s boycott and demonstrations was a reformed National Election Commission (NEC). In contrast to the previous one that was entirely controlled by the CPP, the new one will be neutral, insuring an election honest enough to be non-contestable, the losing party will have no grounds for complaint. Needless to say the above is all theoretical, it’s impossible to say what actually will transpire. One other minor concession regarding voting was the addition of a seat to Sihanoukville province to reflect its growth. Cambodia has proportional representation but by province, not nationally. There’s also a new province, Tbong Khmum, carved out of Kampong Cham, the country’s most populous province. Neither change is likely to help the opposition.

As pointed out in a previous article, the electoral system works against the opposition in that it gives extra weight to voters in sparsely populated rural provinces. Another problem is that the electoral map hasn’t been upgraded to account for population changes and since the opposition does best in urban areas which have experienced strong growth, that’s also a stumbling block for them.

37% Mandate
A perfect example of how warped electoral systems can work against a truly democratic result is the latest UK election. In the UK all MPs are elected in single seat constituencies in what’s called a first-past-the-post system. That means the winner only needs one more vote than the nearest rival. That system works okay when you have two candidates, but the more you add the stranger the potential outcome becomes. For instance, with five candidates it’s theoretically possible for the winner to be elected with as little as 21% of the vote.

Here is the breakdown of percentages of the vote for each party and the number of seats gained.
Conservatives 37%….. 331 seats
Labour 30%….. 242 seats
UK Independence Party 13%……….1 seat
Liberal Democrats 10%……….8 seats
Green Party 4%……….1 seat
Scottish National Party 4%……..56 seats

While the UK system is perfectly legal and legitimate, it has led to an absurd outcome and clearly doesn’t represent the will of the people. One concession Nick Clegg of the Liberal Dems got for joining in a coalition with the Conservatives last time was a referendum on changing the voting system, since his party has always been at a disadvantage in 3-way contests. Unfortunately, both Tories and Labour campaigned vehemently against the changes and the referendum lost.

One way to adapt the system to be more fair is simply proportional representation (PR). In that case the Lib Dems would’ve won 65 seats instead of 8, UKIP 90 instead of one and Greens 25 instead of one. SNP achieved their 56 seats because all of their votes were concentrated in a small area. With PR they would’ve had only about half as many seats. Some countries use a mixed system where some seats are single constituency and some are chosen via PR.

One way to keep the current single seat system but make it fairer is through preference voting, also referred to as Instant Runoff voting. That system is used in Australia and Ireland amongst other nations. Instead of choosing one candidate, you chose candidates in order of preference. If your first choice doesn’t make it, your vote gets transferred to your second choice and the transfers keep happening until a candidate gets 50% of the vote. America has the same system as the UK with the difference that some jurisdictions require a runoff if no candidate gets 50% of the vote.

Voters in the US are reluctant to vote for third parties even if they far prefer them because they’re afraid the candidate they like the least will win as a result. Like if you vote Green, you might help the Republican get elected as happened in 2000 with the Bush-Gore election. If Ralph Nader hadn’t siphoned off 90,000 potential Gore votes, Bush would not have been able to steal the election. It’s totally unfair to place all the blame on Nader since fraud was rampant, but he was definitely a major factor in Gore’s loss.

Sometimes, as in the last UK election the system is more important than the actual votes. And so it will be in Cambodia’s next election, because of the way that seats are allocated the vote winner might actually lose the election. That’s true even though Cambodia’s system is much closer to providing a democratic result than the UK system.