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
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

More than 587,000 votes cast in Cambodia’s general election on Sunday were invalid or spoiled ballots, according to Asia Times’ analysis of preliminary results by the National Election Committee (NEC).

It represents a major protest vote in an election where the government has claimed over 82% voter turnout while many foreign observers and even the United Nations have branded the process as “illegitimate.”

The long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) swept to victory on Sunday winning the vast majority of votes in every single province.

The party, which has been in power since 1979, is believed to have won more than 100 of the National Assembly’s 125 seats, a party spokesman told media on Sunday evening.

The number could be much higher when official results are announced on August 15. Only two of the 19 minor parties that competed against the CPP are believed to have won parliamentary seats, unconfirmed local media reports said.

The CPP’s victory had been all but certain since November when the country’s largest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was formally dissolved by the Supreme Court on politically-motivated accusations it was plotting to overthrow the government.

Its president, Kem Sokha, was arrested in September on treason charges and remains in pre-trial detention.

In the run-up to the election, CNRP leaders in exile called on Cambodians to boycott the ballot in a so-called “clean finger” campaign. The United States and European Union (EU) imposed some financial sanctions on Cambodia’s political rulers as a result of the party’s dissolution.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) raises his inked finger at a polling station after voting during a general election in 2013. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

But the CPP has predictably claimed Sunday’s election was a democratic success, as it supposedly had a much higher voter turnout rate than the last general election, though it wasn’t as high as last year’s commune election.

Preliminary results announced by the NEC yesterday indicate that 82.17% of registered voters turned out to cast their ballot. The NEC and CPP say this shows Cambodia remains a healthy, multi-party system.

However, analysis by the Asia Times reveals that of the 6,850,612 votes cast in the election, 587,137 – or 8.57% – were spoiled ballots, according to figures as of 5am Monday morning.

By comparison, at the 2013 general election there was a total of just 108,085 invalid ballots, or about 1.6% of all votes, and around 133,000, around 1.8%, at last year’s commune election.

In Phnom Penh, the capital, around 14.5% of all votes cast on Sunday were invalid. In Kandal and Kampong Cham provinces the percentage of spoiled ballots was 11.3% and 10.9% respectively. The provinces with the fewest spoilt ballots were Pursat, Kep and Stung Treng.

In the capital, the first-placed CPP secured 456,899 votes, just over four and half times more than the number of spoiled ballots. What’s more, all of the 19 minor parties combined only secured roughly 30,000 more votes than the total number of spoiled ballots in Phnom Penh.

In almost all provinces, the number of spoiled ballots far outweighed votes for the party that came in second place.

A Cambodian woman waits in line to vote at a polling station in Phnom Penh, July 29, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

In Kampong Cham, a historic CNRP stronghold, 48,884 voters delivered invalid ballots, while second-placed Funcinpec received just 26,309 votes. That’s based on a count 1,581 of the province’s 1,659 communes.

Pursat province had the lowest percentage of spoiled ballots, but this number was almost a third more than the votes cast for the second-placed League for Democracy Party (LDP).

These findings are based on preliminary figures reported by the NEC online assessed by the Asia Times on Monday morning. Results include counts from most, but not all, communes.

Some voters took photos of their spoiled ballots and later shared them on social media. Most simply put an “X” across the entire ballot slip; others ticked the boxes of all parties, invalidating their vote in the process. Some voters even drew the sunrise logo of the CNRP at the top of the paper.

Analysts argue this represents a major protest vote against the CPP and Prime Minister Hun Sen, one of the world’s longest serving leaders who has been premier since 1985.

Noan Sereiboth, a political blogger, says this month’s election feels like another “non-stop backward [step] for our democracy.”

CNRP leaders, most of whom are in exile, called on Cambodians to boycott the election, part of the so-called “clean finger” campaign, a name derived from the ink used to indicate a person has voted.

The ruling CPP responded with the threat than anyone not voting would be considered a traitor and possibly imprisoned.

Cambodian police force during an inspection ceremony in Phnom Penh on July 25, 2018 in preparation for the July 29 general election. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Less stern attempts were also made to entice people to show up at the ballot booths. Some companies connected to or owned by the ruling elite have offered discounts over the next few days if customers show their inked fingers.

There were also reports that some private-sector workers, including the 800,000 employed in the garment sector, were told their wages would be cut if they turned up for work without ink on their forefinger.

Outside polling stations in Phnom Penh, which was noticeably quiet for most of election day, voters told the Asia Times that they were scared of boycotting the vote, though many said they would have done so if it wasn’t for the warnings by the ruling CPP.

Instead, many decided to turn up to the ballot stations to receive an inked finger but purposefully invalidate their ballots.

“Imagine all these people marching into voting booths with metaphorical guns to their heads and still walking out with their conscience intact,” says Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.

A statement released by the CPP’s central committee on Sunday night said the preliminary 82.17% voter turnout figure “clearly illustrates the enthusiasm and political rights of the Cambodian people in strengthening a multi-party democracy.”

The figure still means that 1.49 million out of 8.38 million registered voters didn’t turn up, as only 6.88 million people did vote, according to the figures. At the last general election in 2013, at which there was 9.6 million registered voters, 6.7 million people voted.

A Cambodian woman casts her vote during the general elections at a polling station in Phnom Penh on July 29, 2018. Photo: AFP/Manan Vatsyayana

Some analysts and CNRP leaders argue this year’s voter turnout numbers are likely inflated given the lack of independent electoral monitors. Reports of fraud at that poll remain unconfirmed.

Most democratic nations that have donated to Cambodia from decades, including the US, European Union and Japan, refused to send electoral monitors in protest over the CNRP’s dissolution.

The international observers that were present – most from undemocratic nations like China and Myanmar – praised the election as free and fair. There were no reports of violence.

Analysis by Asia Times suggests that turnout figures this year, some of which are not complete, show similarities to previous elections when gauged by province.

Banteay Meanchey, for example, has been among the bottom three provinces for voter turnout at the last two elections, local and national, as it was this weekend.

Kampong Speu, meanwhile, boasted one of the highest turnout figures at last year’s local election, as it did this year. Kep, at the 2013 and this year’s general elections, had one of the highest rates, too.

The one outlier is Siem Reap province. At the last two elections it was near average in turnout, but this year had the lowest rate, at just 73.5%, according to NEC figures from Sunday afternoon. But updated numbers published online, as per Monday morning, put its turnout at 78.85%.

“There are always people who don’t vote, period, but in this election not voting especially in rural areas would seem next to impossible or suicidal. Somehow 1.49 million people escaped the pineapple eyes of the CPP,” says Sophal Ear.

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