Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) casts his vote during the general elections as his wife Bun Rany (centre L) looks on in Phnom Penh on July 29, 2018. Photo: AFP/Manan Vatsyayana
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) casts his vote during the general elections as his wife Bun Rany (centre L) looks on in Phnom Penh, July 29, 2018. Photo: AFP/Manan Vatsyayana

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) claimed a widely expected victory at today’s general election, extending its four decades in power with a possible new supermajority in parliament.

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told Reuters hours after the polls closed that his party had won about 80% of the popular vote, which if so would equate to an estimated 100 out of 125 seats in the National Assembly.

One local media outlet, however, has more recently claimed that the CPP won 114 seats, while the League for Democracy Party (LDP) won five seats and Funcinpec won six seats. Official results will be announced in mid-August. Preliminary results showed the CPP won every province and constituency.

The CPP already controls all but four seats in the Senate, parliament’s upper house, and almost 95% of political offices at the local level. Only 84 National Assembly votes are needed to amend the constitution, which some analysts think the CPP could now do post-election in order to give itself more power.

Although 19 smaller parties contested the poll, the country’s largest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was barred from participating after its court-ordered dissolution on politicized charges in November.

In the lead-up to today’s vote, officials from the United Nations and other leading democratic countries declined to send election monitors and described the election as “illegitimate.”

Initial results show that most of the 19 smaller parties that competed polled poorly. The LDP and the royalist Funcinpec exchanged second position in most constituencies, though often with just a fraction of the CPP’s vote, initial results showed.

“This makes me feel so hopeless, like I do not know where I should go while in a forest alone. I do not know if I could call it an election or not,” says Noan Sereiboth, a political blogger.

“While [voters] cannot boycott it because of the consequences, [spoiling their ballots] is the only one way they can show their will in this election and show their peaceful protest against the election,” he added.

The National Election Committee (NEC) said that voter turnout was 82.17%, which is significantly higher than at the last general election in 2013.

Cambodian election officials empty a ballot box for counting during the general elections at a polling station in Phnom Penh on July 29, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

The figure is thought to also include a substantial number of spoiled ballots, which could become a point of contention when the official results are announced.

There are provisional reports of at least 17% of the votes cast in Phnom Penh, and 12.7% in Kandal province, being invalid ballots. It appears from the same reports that the percentage of invalid votes is higher nationwide than votes for any of the other minor 19 parties.

The CPP and the NEC claimed today that the supposedly high voter turnout proves today’s election was a democratic success.

“We congratulate all Cambodians who have voted today in sustaining a multi-party political system in Cambodia,” reads a statement by the CPP’s central committee issued on Sunday evening.

The CPP has been in power since 1979, while Prime Minister Hun Sen is now one of the world’s longest serving leaders, having been in the role since 1985. He has promised to stay in power for at least another decade.

Some political analysts argue that today’s supposedly high voter turnout doesn’t necessarily equate to a legitimate democratic victory, given that many Cambodians were warned they would be treated as traitors or criminals if they shunned the poll.

Moreover, high numbers of invalid or spoiled ballots indicates a nationwide protest against what many surely saw as a rigged electoral process, analysts say.

The dissolved CNRP almost won the last general election in 2013 when it secured 44.4% of the popular vote, or around 300,000 fewer votes than the victorious CPP.

Since the CNRP’s dissolution, Hun Sen pulled out all the stops to ensure victory at today’s ballot. Independent media were closed or purchased by party allies, civil society outlets silenced and voters harassed by CPP organizers.

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

“This senseless victory does nothing to resolve the political crisis that Cambodia faces as a result of the regime’s totalitarian drift over the last 12 months,” said Sam Rainsy, the CNRP’s former president who is now in exile, in a Facebook statement on Sunday afternoon.

“For the Cambodian people, unable to make a real choice because of the absence of the CNRP, the result of this false election conducted in a climate of fear is a betrayal of the popular will,” he added.

In the run-up to the election, the prevailing question was not which party would win but rather the number of people who would turn out to vote.

CNRP leaders, most of whom are now in exile, called on Cambodians to boycott the election in a “clean finger” campaign, a reference to the indelible ink used at ballot stations to indicate a person has voted. The ruling CPP, however, said that boycotters would be treated as traitors, fined and possibly even jailed.

Moreover, the ruling party hinted that communes boasting low voter turnout figures wouldn’t receive state investment in coming years. Many of the country’s 800,000 garment workers were reportedly warned their salaries could be deducted if they didn’t show up at work on Monday with an inked finger.

At around 3pm, the time the polls closed, Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith wrote in a Facebook post that the unofficial voter turnout was 75.04%. The official figure has gradually since inflated.

By 5pm, NEC chairman Sik Bun Hok announced nationwide turnout was 80.49%, though hours later the figure was raised to 82.1%. This included a more than 10% increase for Phnom Penh, which had boasted the second-lowest turnout figure based on the earlier projection.

At a press conference on Sunday afternoon, Sik Bun Hok said that there was no intimidation during the election and people arrived at ballot stations with “happy faces.”

If so it marks a reversal in recent trends. Voter turnout at national-level elections had been in decline for years. From a peak of 93.7% at the 1998 general election, it fell to just 69.6% at the 2013 poll.

Turnout at last year’s local level commune election, in which the CNRP overturned the CPP’s near domination of local offices, hit 90.3%. Many analysts consider that to be the baseline as it was arguably the election with the cleanest voter lists and most fairly conducted.

There were 9.67 million registered voters in 2013; this year, however, there were only 8.3 million registered voters as many declined to register after the CNRP’s dissolution.

Cambodians check their names on a voters list at a polling station in Phnom Penh on July 29, 2018. Photo: AFP/Manan Vatsyayana

Analysts say that the defining final metric of today’s election will be the number of spoiled or invalid ballots rather than voter turnout. In interviews conducted near ballot stations, voters admitted with trepidation that they intentionally spoiled their ballots.

One voter, who asked for anonymity, told Asia Times that she wanted to boycott the election, but because she thought it too dangerous, she instead decided to turn up and spoil her vote.

At the last general election there was a total of 108,085 spoiled ballots cast, or about 1.6% of all votes, according to NEC figures. There were around 133,000 invalid ballots, or around 1.8% of the total votes, at last year’s commune election. The percentage of spoiled ballots is expected to be much higher at the July 29 general election.

Long-time donors America, the European Union (EU) and Japan all refused to send electoral monitors this year in protest of the CNRP’s dissolution. That meant the majority of foreign monitors were from undemocratic nations, including China.

Over half of the 80,000 domestic electoral monitors were reportedly provided by pro-CPP groups, local media reported. This includes the Union of Youth Federation of Cambodia, led by Hun Many, Hun Sen’s youngest son, and the Cambodian Women for Peace and Development, led by a deputy prime minister, Men Sam An.

“Hun Sen and his allies are engaged in a desperate bid to lend the elections a veneer of legitimacy by ensuring a respectable turnout and a presence of observers,” said Charles Santiago, a Malaysian member of parliament and chairperson of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, in a statement on Saturday.

“The international community should not be fooled by this charade – countless brave people inside Cambodia are putting their safety and liberty at risk by merely exercising their democratic right not to vote,” he added.

Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) supporters parade in an open truck during a campaign rally before the July 29 election. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

The day before the election, access to 17 websites was blocked by the government, including the sites of independent media like Voice of America and Radio Free Asia, though pro-CPP outlets weren’t affected.

A slew of “fake news” content was spread on social media on Saturday which appeared to show senior members of the CNRP calling on people to vote, whereas they have been demanding a boycott for months. It is thought some of the videos were actually filmed years ago, before the CNRP’s dissolution.

It’s still unclear how the international community will respond to today’s vote. America and the EU have already imposed financial sanctions on some Cambodian officials.

Last week, America’s House of Representatives passed the Cambodia Democracy Act that, if passed by the Senate, would allow President Donald Trump to impose asset freezes on targeted CPP members and others, and prohibit US citizens from engaging in financial transactions with sanctioned Cambodian officials, including members of Hun Sen’s family.

Both the US and EU could follow up by withdrawing preferential trade privileges for Cambodia, which provide tariff and tax-free status to Cambodian exports.

Since most the country’s exports go to the US and EU, tariffs would likely cripple many economic sectors, including the vastly important garment sector. As of 11pm on Sunday, neither the EU or US had made public statements on the election’s preliminary results.

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