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
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

The question many Cambodians are asking themselves ahead of this month’s general election is not so much which party to vote for but instead whether they should vote at all.

It’s all but certain that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will win the election to be held on July 29 as its only viable rival, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was dissolved by court order several months ago.

But if the CNRP has its way through a so-called “clean finger” boycott campaign, the election result will lack legitimacy at home and abroad due to a low voter turnout.

In November, the Supreme Court ruled to disband the CNRP after it was accused of trying to foment a “color revolution” aimed at toppling Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP-led government.

Most of the CNRP’s politicians who were banned from politics for five years on court order have since fled the country while its president, Kem Sokha, languishes in prison on what are widely viewed as trumped up treason charges.

Now, CNRP officials have from exile called on Cambodian voters to boycott the upcoming election in a “clean finger” campaign, reference to the indelible ink used at ballot stations to indicate a person has voted. The goal, party members say, is to show that the upcoming election is a sham.

Originally intended to prevent the same person from voting multiple times, inked fingers have now come to connote a different form of electoral fraud in Cambodia, say analysts.

A Cambodian man scans his finger during a voter registration procedure at a commune in Kandal province, September 1, 2016. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

CPP politicians have responded indignantly to the proposed boycott, despite the fact that voting isn’t compulsory under Cambodian law. The United Nations, for one, has said Cambodian authorities must respect a boycott.

Deputy Prime Minister and ranking CPP member Hor Namhong has called the “clean finger” campaign a “betrayal [of] the king, nation and people” in an interview with Fresh News, a government mouthpiece. Hun Sen, who has been in power for 33 years, has said he would consider those who participate in and promote the boycott as “traitors.”

The government has also indicated that it will deem it a criminal offense if people agitate for others to join the boycott campaign. In recent months, many Cambodians have posted photos on social media of their raised, un-inked fingers.

Fines and custodial sentences can be applied to those who engage in “incitement to obstruct an election” under electoral laws, which might be lodged against supporters of the boycott. Hun Sen has said that “propagandizing citizens against voting is in violation of the country’s Criminal Code.

When rumors spread earlier this month on social media that the ink used by electoral authorities is poisonous, Hun Sen personally responded by warning those who post pro-boycott materials on Facebook that they can be tracked down within six minutes.

The threat is real. A 41-year-old teacher from Kampong Chhnang province was arrested and later released this week for telling friends to boycott the election. People from his village reportedly turned him in to the police.

Meanwhile, media outlets could incur punitive fines and journalists face possible imprisonment if their reports are judged to lead to “a loss of trust in the election.” It’s unclear what authorities consider acceptable reporting and commentary on the proposed boycott.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen looks at a ballot box after casting his vote at a polling station in Kandal province, June 4, 2017. Photo: AFP/ Tang Chhin Sothy

Thousands of Cambodians reportedly received text messages from the National Election Committee (NEC), the official election body, instructing them of the importance of voting. These were sent through the Mobitel network, a telecoms operator owned by Kith Meng, a tycoon with close links to the CPP.

There are also reports that garment factory workers, who number roughly 850,000 and have long been loyal to the CNRP, were told that they will face disciplinary action by employers if they turn up for work without an inked finger.

In private conversations, some voters in Phnom Penh say they intend to either boycott polling stations or return spoiled ballots, which would get around the problem of not having an inked finger. Still, many said that they are apprehensive about doing either with the threat of potential penalties.

Mu Sochua, a CNRP vice president, says that many migrant workers living abroad, of which there are almost 1.5 million, have joined the “clean finger” campaign and are now trying to persuade their families in Cambodia to do the same. “The risks taken by voters posting their clean fingers on Facebook is commendable,” she told Asia Times.

Some 2.9 million Cambodians – or around 44% of all voters – backed the CNRP at the 2013 general election. Around 8.4 million Cambodians are registered to vote in this month’s election, according to the latest voter list.

Supporters the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) at a campaign rally before its dissolution, Phnom Penh, June 2, 2017. Reuters/Samrang Pring

“We know about half the population will mentally have clean fingers even if they are forced to go and dip their fingers in that indelible ink,” says Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.

The ruling CPP is concerned about the possibility of a nationwide boycott and is allegedly dispensing funds to counter the “no vote” campaign. Hun Sen has spent months giving speeches at factories across the country, mainly to garment workers who are considered loyal to the CNRP.

The CPP is estimated to have spent more than US$3.5 million from the state budget on handouts to garment workers who attend his speeches, according to reports. Each worker receives roughly US$5 in an envelope bearing the prime minister’s insignia and inscribed “a gift from Hun Sen and his wife.”

The government has defended the hand-outs, despite the fact that most of the speeches took place before the official 21-day campaign period, which began on July 7.

Still, the CPP is heading into the election with two strong campaign narratives which have served it well at past elections. First, the CPP says, it is the party that ended the country’s long civil war and, second, since the 1990s has overseen a period of political stability and economic prosperity.

To be sure, the CPP’s campaign narratives have certain resonance, especially with those living in rural areas, say analysts. Cities and wealthy provinces, on the other hand, have typically backed the CNRP at recent elections.

Case in point: the CNRP won 468 of Phnom Penh’s 899 commune seats at elections held last June before its dissolution. The CPP won 431. In Kampong Cham, the prime minister’s home province, the CNRP won 435 of its 817 commune seats, compared to only 380 for the CPP.

Prime Minister Hun Sen (R) greets supporters of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) during the commune election campaign, Phnom Penh, June 2, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Geographical politics are likely to be a major factor in the boycott campaign. One young voter originally from Kampong Thom province who requested anonymity noted that it will be much easier for people in cities to boycott the election than those in the countryside.

“In rural areas, you cannot escape the pineapple eyes of the CPP,” says Sophal Ear, referring to a Cambodian saying that is typically associated with the former genocidal Khmer Rouge regime.

For months, CPP activists have traveled the countryside signing up households as “CPP families” in a bid to make sure the party administrators know how many members it has. The CPP no doubt wants to avoid what happened in 2013, when it officially had 5.3 million members but only received 3.5 million votes.

In April, it was announced that 80,000 security personnel will be deployed to secure this month’s election. This includes 20,000 people from so-called “citizen forces,” CPP-selected volunteer groups from villages across the country.

Since these volunteers know everyone in the commune, it makes it easier for the party to know who has boycotted the election, analysts said. It also adds to an atmosphere of mass surveillance and is likely to persuade voters to turn up to ballot stations on election day, they added.

Rural villagers are also well aware that the CPP tends to reward loyal communes with rich post-election infrastructure spending, while holding back money from communes that support the opposition. The same might apply for the proposed boycott.

Cambodians cast their votes in the general elections in Veal Sbou village, Kandal province, in a file photo: Photo: AFP/Khem Sovannara

As with all elections, it will come down to the numbers. Voter turnout at general elections in Cambodia has been falling since 1993. In 2013, only 68.5% of voters turned out at the polls. Analysts say that any turnout figure below 60% would undermine the upcoming election’s credibility.

All of this, of course, assumes honesty in electoral accounting. “The CPP-dominated NEC can always produce figures to promote the falsehood that there was an enormous voter turnout,” says Paul Chambers, a lecturer at the College of Asean Community Studies at Naresuan University, Thailand.

This won’t be helped by the fact that most democratic nations, including the United States and European Union, won’t send electoral monitors to oversee the polls in protest of the CNRP’s dissolution.

“50,000 observers from less-than democratic countries is really not impressive. says Sophal Ear, referring to NEC’s claim that 50,000 electoral monitors, including from China, Myanmar and Singapore, will observe the ballot. “As far as many of them are concerned, they’re on a junket.”

What will happen on July 29 is anyone’s guess. Elections are used by Hun Sen and the CPP to show the business and political elite that the people still considers them the nation’s legitimate leaders.

Few analysts think that the CNRP would have ever been allowed by the CPP to take power, even if it won freely and fairly. And while the “clean finger” boycott campaign may undermine the credibility of the polls, it’s not likely in any foreseeable scenario to knock the CPP from power.