A Cambodian Buddhist monk shows his inked finger after casting his vote during Cambodia's general election in Phnom Penh on July 29, 2018. Photo: AFP/Manan Vatsyayana

On the streets of Phnom Penh, everyone is asking the same question: did you or didn’t you vote? But the answer is obvious.

Those who voted in Sunday’s problematic general election sport dark brown ink stains on their index fingers. Those with ‘clean fingers’, by contrast, appear to have backed exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s call for an election boycott.

Cambodia’s July 29 elections were fought not along conventional party lines, but around the single issue of turnout.

At least 25 countries have made use of semi-permanent election ink, ostensibly to curtail fraudulent voting. The ink is supposed to stop people from voting more than once. In Cambodia, election ink has assumed a new significance: its purpose was to maximize voter turnout, by putting pressure on citizens to participate in an election that many of them viewed as farcical.

While the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), led by longstanding prime minister Hun Sen, has dominated Cambodian politics for decades, the 2013 general election showed big gains for the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), which took 44% of the popular vote, and almost half of the seats in parliament. The CNRP made another strong showing in the 2017 commune council elections, and looked on course to win a plurality of seats in the 2018 general election.

Spooked by the very real prospect of losing power at the ballot box, the CPP regime took drastic action to neuter the opposition. In November 2017, the Cambodian Supreme Court dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), following allegations of a foreign plot to remove longstanding prime minister Hun Sen from office.

An election campaign billboard featuring Cambodia’s long-ruling premier Hun Sen, July 2018. Photo: Duncan McCargo

Former leader Sam Rainsy had already fled Cambodia to avoid a jail term for politically-motivated defamation changes. CNRP co-founder Khem Sokha had been arrested in September 2017 and remains in jail. While 19 other parties emerged to run against the ruling CPP, none of them offered any substantive threat. In the event, the CPP swept all of the seats in the 125 member assembly.

Winning was the easy part. But having boxed in an empty ring, the CPP now has a serious legitimacy problem. Their answer? Look at the turnout: 82.89%, considerably higher than the 2013 turnout of 69.6%.

The line adopted by CPP cadres and government-aligned commentators goes like this: domestic troublemakers and foreigners are trying to discredit the election, but the high turnout shows that the great majority of Cambodians endorsed the government. To underline the point, 76.78% of those who voted backed the CPP.

The ballot paper offered little more than empty choices: a plethora of unknown and untested parties, some widely viewed as spoiler parties, created and funded by CPP-aligned individuals trying to create a façade of pluralism whilst sowing confusion and splitting anti-regime sentiments.

There can be no doubt that the CPP was very successful in mobilizing its core vote, and that many people who voted CNRP in 2013 and 2017 switched to the CPP in 2018. But since the CPP was the only really credible choice on the ballot, turnout was the key to boosting the CPP vote.

In one commune, groups of factory workers who had returned to their home village for the election weekend could be found gathered in the open spaces under various houses, drinking cans of beer and singing karaoke.

Cambodians in a provincial setting after casting their ballots at the July 29 election. Photo: Duncan McCargo/Photo Editing; Asia Times

Even as the workers waved their ink-stained fingers rowdily for my camera, the boisterous parties had a sad vibe to them. The commune had strongly supported the opposition CNRP in last year’s local elections, but now the opposition had been abolished.

On Labor Ministry orders, their employers in and around Phnom Penh had declared a three day holiday from Saturday – usually a work day – to Monday.

Workers heading home from the capital could even collect free bus tickets from a CPP office. But everyone who went home was expected to vote: some were told that if they returned to their factories clean-fingered, a US$20 a day fine would be deducted from their wages of US$170 a month.

Others feared possible dismissal from their jobs. One woman was nervous: she had forgotten to bring her ID card and was turned away from the polling station. Was there a way of faking election ink, they discussed, to make it look as if she had voted?

Most people who lived year-round in the village also chose to vote. Several explained that the village head was a close relative. They had been handed polling slips and felt obligated to cast their ballots, even though they did so reluctantly. Anyone working for the government – including teachers and nurses – was required to take part in the polls.

Cambodians show their inked fingers after voting in the July 29 elections. Photo: Duncan McCargo/Photo Editing: Asia Times

The CPP did not hesitate to use legal measures to intimidate those calling for an election boycott. The ruling party pressed charges with the National Election Commission (NEC) against Choung Choungy, an outspoken lawyer who had posted a video on Facebook explaining that boycotting the polls was not illegal.

The party also filed charges with the Battambang NEC against a group of five former CNRP activists who posted a picture of themselves holding up ‘clean fingers’ on social media. They were each fined US$2500 by the Battambang courts, just two days before polling.

In Cambodia, indelible ink no longer serves as means to reduce election fraud: instead, it has become a crude means of voter manipulation. Cambodia’s 2018 elections saw the CPP shift the terrain of electoral contestation from a choice between competing parties into a heavily-rigged referendum.

In this referendum, the biggest losers were millions of ordinary Cambodians who found themselves dragooned into endorsing the ruling party against their will. For now at least, Hun Sen has successfully rewritten the rules of Cambodian elections.

Watching all this are the ruling military junta in neighboring Thailand– desperate to secure a favorable outcome in their own long-postponed election – and Malaysia’s recently ousted premier Najib Razak, who must be wishing he had used CPP-style draconian measures to block the return of his mentor-turned-nemesis, Mahathir Mohamad.

Longstanding authoritarian regimes across the world are now looking to Hun Sen’s Cambodia for inspiration.

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