A supporter of the banned opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) paints over the party logo at the CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh on November 18, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Cambodia has just witnessed the “death of democracy,” if Mu Sochua, vice president of the country’s banned and largely exiled main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), is to be believed.

At a press conference today in Jakarta, she said a “dark new day” in Cambodia’s history will be marked as July 29, 2018, when the country’s long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) claimed a landslide victory at a general election independent observers and certain governments have branded as “illegitimate” and a “sham.”

The day after the polls, Mu Sochua said, “The result announced by the CPP and the National Election Committee must be fully rejected by the international community.”

The CPP, led by long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen, gained overwhelming majorities in all Cambodian provinces at yesterday’s ballot. CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said today his party won 77.5% of the vote and all of parliament’s seats, according to news reports.

it was a predictable result. In November, the Supreme Court formally dissolved the CNRP, the main opposition party that nearly won the 2013 ballot, after it was accused of working with the United States to overthrow the CPP-led government.

Its president, Kem Sokha, was arrested months earlier on treason charges and remains in pre-trial detention. All CNRP elected officials were stripped of their elected posts.

Sam Rainsy, the CNRP’s ex-president who is now leading the chorus for its politicians-in-exile, where he has been since late 2015, told Asia Times on Monday morning that the election results show that “no party can replace the CNRP.”

Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy on an earlier campaign trail. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

“With the Hun Sen government losing legitimacy after such a sham election,” he added, there needs to be “a stronger determination on the part of the Cambodian people in their fight for freedom and justice, and increasing international pressure.”

If this happens, Sam Rainsy said, then “a democratic change will come sooner than later.”

In the run-up to the election, the CNRP appealed for Cambodians to boycott the ballot en masse. The campaign did not appear to be overly successful at first glance, judging by figures released by the National Election Committee (NEC).

The NEC claimed a 82.17% voter turnout, considerably higher than the near 69.6% seen at the 2013 general election at which the CNRP participated and nearly won. Local elections held in mid-2017, also contested by the CNRP, saw voter turnout of over 90%.

The CPP said in a statement on Sunday evening that the turnout figure “clearly illustrates the enthusiasm and political rights of the Cambodian people in strengthening a multi-party democracy.”

Independent analysts, however, say the turnout statistic provides a false portrait, given fewer people registered to vote this year compared to 2013 and considering the number of spoiled ballots was much higher than average.

Official figures claim 6.88 million people voted at Sunday’s poll, whereas there were 6.73 million voters in 2013. When the number of spoilt ballots is taken into account, fewer people actually voted for a political party this year compared to the 2013 election, according to the NEC’s figures.

A supporter of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) at an election campaign rally in Phnom Penh on July 27, 2018. Photo: AFP/Mahan Vatsyayana

Asia Times’ analysis, using NEC data, shows that more than 587,000 ballots cast at Sunday’s election were spoiled or invalid. This accounts for 8.57% of all votes and about six times more than the number of invalid ballots cast at the last two elections, according to preliminary data published online by the NEC

It also appears to show that nearly 1.5 million people didn’t even register to vote. There is thus no way of telling how many Cambodians heeded the CNRP’s call to boycott the ballot.
Some CNRP politicians, meanwhile, allege the NEC’s turnout figure for Sunday’s election is fabricated.

Figures reportedly produced by the CPP and reviewed by Asia Times tell a starker story. The unconfirmed CPP findings put the total number of spoiled ballots at 573,883 and total number of votes at just 6,298,507. If accurate, the figures show roughly 385,000 fewer votes than recorded by the NEC and a total spoilt ballot of 9.11%.

With the CPP firmly reinstalled in power, which it has held consecutively since 1979, it is highly likely that the CNRP remains an exiled group, with most of its politicians who have fled the country unable to return for the foreseeable future.

A high number of invalid ballots likely indicates that dissident voters preferred to spoil their vote rather than opt for one of the 19 minor parties that competed at the election. Provisional results show that none of the smaller parties won any parliamentary seats. That dashes the hopes of small parties which aspired to become the new main opposition party supplanting the CNRP.

In almost all provinces, the number of spoiled ballots far outweighed votes for the second-ranking party. In Phnom Penh, the capital, more than 100,000 voters cast invalid or spoiled ballots, making up roughly 14.5% of all votes. By comparison, second-placed Funcinpec won just 4.4% of the votes, or 30,418 ballots.

A Cambodian woman casts her vote during the country’s sixth general election in Phnom Penh on July 29, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

“We did our best with limited resources to get people to know and trust us. But the people have decided to continue with old ways of politics,” Yang Saing Koma, the prime ministerial candidate of the Grassroots Democratic Party, which failed to secure a substantial number of votes, wrote this morning on Twitter. His party is thought to have received around 1% of the total vote.

The highest number of spoiled ballots were recorded in Phnom Penh, and Kandal and Kampong Cham provinces. At the 2013 general election, the CNRP won more seats than the CPP in all three of these areas.

All of this “means that the CNRP still holds the aspirations of the people despite being deleted from the ballot,” says Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.

After the CNRP called for an electoral boycott, the ruling CPP responded by saying that Cambodians who didn’t vote would be considered traitors, subject to punitive fines, and possibly imprisoned.

In the end, preliminary election results suggest many Cambodian voters decided on a middle way: they went to vote but spoiled their ballots in a silent protest.

One interpretation of the preliminary results is that Cambodians who want political change want the CNRP to be the main opposition party, rather than having another party to take up the mantle.

The CPP will now apparently have a total majority in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament. The party already controls all but four seats in the country’s upper house, the Senate, and virtually all elected positions at the local government level.

Mu Sochua of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party in a 2017 file photo. Photo: AFP/Pontus Lundahl 

CNRP representatives said today that they will keep battling for Cambodian democracy. Mu Sochua, speaking in Jakarta, described the next CPP-led administration as a “de-facto regime” and called on Association of Southeast Asian countries – not just the European Union and US, the group’s main lobbying targets – to speak out against the rigged poll.

She said that if Hun Sen is given a free ride by Cambodia’s Southeast Asian neighbors, then it could lead to political instability in the wider region. She did not elaborate how such instability would manifest or spread, however.

Sam Rainsy told Asia Times on Monday that he thinks the voter turnout figure was “inflated” because the CPP was “controlling the whole election process and the absence of any independent and credible observers or competing party agents, thus allowing ballot stuffing and other irregularities in the counting and reporting procedures.”

With such strong oppositional statements, analysts doubt the victorious CPP will enter into negotiations with the CNRP or allow it to return as a legal party anytime soon.

There were earlier suggestions that some CNRP members may leave and join smaller parties post-election, though preliminary results indicate the path is a dead-end to oppositional politics.

Academic Sophal Ear says the CNRP’s only option is to focus its efforts on lobbying foreign governments to introduce stiffer sanctions on Hun Sen’s government and CPP members.

“The CPP is already gloating about its performance in the election – I don’t think they are interested in negotiating with the CNRP. But when sanctions hit, they might think twice,” he added.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) and his wife Bun Rany (L) leave the polling station after casting their votes in the general election in Phnom Penh on July 29, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

It’s still unclear how the international community will respond. In the run-up to the election, the US and EU imposed financial sanctions on certain CPP grandees, including travel bans on targeted officials, and cuts in bilateral aid. Both refused to send election monitors to observe Sunday’s poll.

NEC president Sik Bun Hok said at a press conference on Sunday that the election and its supposed high voter turnout numbers “answers the international community’s question about whether Cambodia loves democracy.”

To the contrary, a White House press secretary statement published on Monday morning expressed “disappointment” with the election and warned that the US “will consider additional steps to respond to the elections and other recent setbacks to democracy and human rights.”

The United Nations, which briefly took over governance of Cambodian in the early 1990s, has not yet commented on the election or its preliminary result. The CNRP’s Mu Sochua put particular pressure on the Australian government to respond with punitive measures.

Her call comes after an investigation by Al Jazeera this month alleged that the head of Cambodia’s tax department, Kong Vibol, lied to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission over his business dealings in the country, a potential criminal offense.

The likely biggest threat to the CPP’s new one-party regime would be for the EU or US to remove Cambodia from their preferential trade deals. Cambodia’s suspension from the EU’s “Everything But Arms” scheme would be ruinous to its crucial garment sector, which exports most of its output to Europe, imperiling the livelihoods of some three million Cambodians who directly and indirectly depend on the sector.

An EU delegation recently visited Cambodia to assess the situation, the results of which have not yet been made public. The CNRP will no doubt continue to goad the EU and others to impose as punitive measures as possible against a clampdown and rigged election they represents the “death” of Cambodia’s democracy.

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