PHNOM PENH: Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen made electricity prices - long an economic grievance of much of the population - one of the key centre points in a populist push for a strong voter turnout in the upcoming national elections.
At the official launch of the campaign of his ruling party - the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) - on Saturday (Jul 7) Hun Sen promised to slash power prices throughout the country for all users, including businesses, from 2019.
The price for electricity in Cambodia - which is largely controlled by state company Electricite du Cambodge - is one of the highest in the world. Private consumers in some provinces, including the capital Phnom Penh currently pay US$0.75 per kilowatt hour. That is nearly five times the price in Singapore.
Critics say the sector is lagging behind the needs of the country and is overpriced and underperforming. Some parts of Cambodia are still without power, although Hun Sen has promised to have the entire country electrified by 2020.
His pledge means low-electricity users of up to 10kwh per month - typical rural households - will save about 40 per cent on their usage. The savings for heavier users - more than 250 kwh per month, common for a household using regular air conditioning, is more far more modest (1.3 per cent).
It is a pitch made directly to the low-earning base of Cambodia’s population and just one of a number of spending commitments to encourage voters to turn out at the polls on Jul 29. He says the tariff cut will cost the government about US$40 million each year.
“We hope this real measure will not only improve living conditions for all levels of people but also improve the competitiveness of Cambodia in attracting more investment,” he said in his speech to a crowd of 50,000, according to organisers.
“I believe our people all over the country understand the importance ... and give support to the CPP to keep ruling the government with me as the prime minister.”
He also said civil servants would now be paid fortnightly rather than monthly, and that he would encourage the private sector to follow suit. And he reaffirmed annual salary increases for the armed forces and garment workers, health care benefits for low-income earners and easier business transfer arrangements for market vendors.
“I have seen the development in Cambodia and that progress continues under the prime minister. Whenever he promises, I feel so happy. He has never failed to deliver,” said CPP supporter Un Nalin, 24.
The CPP faces almost no obstacle to complete domination of this election following the systematic dismantling of the main national opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
The ruling party will run against a motley assortment of small parties, which also held rallies on Saturday, and is expected to win all but a handful of seats, consolidating a more than three-decade rule.
Analysts say that voter turnout, rather than the number of seats won, will be a better reflection of the government’s regard with the population.
Overhauling the electricity sector was one of the electoral planks of the CNRP in 2016.
Speaking to Channel NewsAsia ahead of commune elections that year, the party’s last political endeavour before being dismantled in 2017, deputy director of public affairs Kem Monovithya said prices could be dropped dramatically and solar energy harnessed more broadly.
“The CNRP plan will make it cheaper by taking a transparent approach with power suppliers, change the business model for redistribution and adding new sources of supply into the mix,” she said.
In what has become a consistent message in his many public appearances over the past year, Hun Sen in his speech again took aim at those who allegedly plotted a “colour revolution”.
“The colour revolution led by the former opposition party - and the orders of foreigners - attempting to topple the legally elected government was prevented in time using various legal means,” he said.
“Multi party democracy and the legal rights of the people have been protected and promoted. All of the historical achievements of the CPP are held in the hearts of the people. No one can manipulate or deny that.”
The United States and European Union have withdrawn financial support for the upcoming vote and openly criticised the dismantling of democracy in the country, namely the abolishing of the CNRP and jailing and exile of several leaders.
Independent media organisations have been shuttered and journalists harassed and by international measures, Cambodia is one of the most corrupt countries in the world.