The International Republican Institute (IRI) sponsored a ground-breaking set of policy discussions focused on the issues most important to Cambodians in advance of the May 2009 indirect elections for provincial and district councils.  In general, Cambodian political discussion seldom focuses on the priorities of everyday citizens.  Instead, parties are largely based on personalities and historical factions from the extinguished civil wars.

According to IRI’s November 2008 national survey of Cambodian public opinion, most voters see no difference between the major political parties, and only four percent say the differences between parties are the issues they talk about.  This makes it difficult for elections to be seen as a real choice for voters between competing governing visions.

IRI held two solution-based policy discussions with youth representatives of the two largest parties in Cambodia, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and opposition Sam Rainsy Party.  At each forum, five young people from each party discussed their party’s solutions to the top issues facing Cambodians.  Each person presented their party’s solution to a single issue and fielded audience questions about the topic.

The discussions, one in the capital city of Phnom Penh and another in Kampong Cham province, were broadcast on Cambodian Television Network, the most popular station in the country, in cooperation with the National Election Commission and the Ministry of Information.

The issues discussed were those identified by IRI’s November 2008 poll as most important in Cambodians’ daily lives: price of goods, jobs, poverty and debt, health and sanitation, and lack of farmland.

The live audiences were filled with young supporters from each party and young, independent voters.  All were invited to submit written questions on any or all of the five issues, several of which were randomly chosen and posed directly to the youth party representatives.  Of all the questions submitted 36 percent were about jobs and 22 percent about the price of goods.

Television viewers were invited to vote via SMS texts on which of the five issues were most important to them.  The top two responses, each garnering one-third of all SMS votes, were jobs and the price of goods.

A political party became eligible to participate in each youth policy discussion after holding democratic internal elections among their youth wings to select the five people to represent the party.  IRI then trained eligible participants in policy research and public speaking skills.

These youth policy discussions were preceded by IRI’s youth debates during the National Assembly campaign period of July 2008 that included representatives from six political parties.  Those debates launched the career of Mrs. DAM Dariny, who has since been appointed Secretary of State for Rural Development.

Cambodia has one of the youngest populations in the world, with the national average age in the early 20s.  IRI runs several programs in Cambodia to get young people more involved in politics and civil society.  In addition to the youth policy debates, IRI trains the youth wings of all parliamentary parties, sponsors the Youth Council of Cambodia and produces the Youth Leadership Challenge television show.

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