AS the dust settles on Cambodia’s most predictable of general elections, we are now looking at the “post-mortem for Cambodian democracy,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, warns.
It came as no surprise to anyone that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) claimed victory in Sunday’s general election, which has been dubbed a “sham” and was widely acknowledged by rights groups as a “mockery of democracy.”
Official results will not be announced until mid-August but CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told Reuters at around 8.30pm local time that his party won an estimated 100 out of 125 parliamentary seats.
“The CPP won 80 percent of all the votes and we estimate we will win not less than 100 seats,” he said.
While 20 different parties graced the ballot papers, it was essentially a one-horse race following a concerted and coordinated effort by the government to dismantle any form of credible opposition and silence dissenting voices in the lead up to Sunday.
The last remaining weapon left in the opposition’s arsenal was that of a boycott of the vote. But despite calls to skip the vote from former opposition members, including the now-exiled former leader Sam Rainsy, and the widespread “clean finger” social media campaign, voters still turned out in big numbers.
Final reports were of a turnout over 82 percent; well above the 60 percent predicted by authorities. While polling stations in Phnom Penh appeared more like ghost towns than voting booths on election day, this was not the case everywhere.
— Mark Tilly (@mark_tilly1) July 29, 2018
Turnout does not equal legitimacy
But, despite appearances, the high turnout does not necessarily paint the picture of an electorate happily engaging in the democratic process.
“Given the climate of intimidation that existed prior to the election, it’s hard to take these figures at face value,” author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia and research affiliate at the Carolina Asia Center at the University of North Carolina, Sebastian Strangio, told Asian Correspondent.
“The government made very clear that it was not going to tolerate anyone advocating the boycott of the election and it would treat them as criminals and prosecute them. I think many Cambodians who may have heeded the call to boycott decided that discretion was the better part of valour and went along and cast their ballot.”
Seeing this as a test of Hun Sen’s legitimacy, the CPP used intimidation in the lead up to the election to pressure people to get out and vote.
In an email to Asian Correspondent, Robertson detailed the underhand tactics used by local officials.
According to Robertson, rural voters were warned they would lose out on basic services in the future, such as official letters and documents needed in their daily lives, if they failed to vote on Sunday.
Civil servants also faced threats of sacking if they couldn’t present an ink-stained finger to prove they had cast a ballot. And working class people in urban areas were pressured by a denial of opportunities connected to their livelihoods.
An example of this, Robertson says, is that of tuk-tuk drivers who were told if they didn’t vote, they would be denied access to queues for passengers coming out of hotels and malls in Phnom Penh.
“The CPP found and exploited any and every source of leverage to compel people to vote, and are scrutinizing compliance by looking for voting ink on the finger,” Robertson told me. “I think that we can expect many incidents of retaliation against non-voters in the coming days and weeks.”
‘I feel hopeless’
It appears Hun Sen’s heavy-handed and coercive approach worked. One 29-year-old Cambodian, who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons, said he knew many people who had gone along to the polling stations today out of fear rather than any conviction that the election would make a difference.
“I feel hopeless from this election. It is so sad to see some people not want to vote but they must vote because they have no choice and are under pressure, intimidation, and coercion,” the politically active researcher told Asian Correspondent.
“Some young voters are told to vote because their parents are the ruling party’s member or officials. Some need to vote because they want to have the indelible ink on their index finger and are afraid of the consequences of not voting.”
One highly fearful voter, who admitted to spoiling a ballot, said she was concerned for her safety. "It's not secure here. People get killed. I want to have change, but how can we? I want to have liberty like the US like other countries. I want to have development like Thailand." pic.twitter.com/akf6EGdajS
— Abby Seiff (@instupor) July 29, 2018
He, himself, decided to abstain from voting today and he expressed his frustration at the whole process and his belief that the election does not reflect the will of the people of Cambodia.
This lack of meaningful choice on the ballot papers led some people to use the limited capacity for rebellion left available to them.
There have been many reports of spoiled ballots, some of which stated the voters’ real desire to vote for the now-dissolved Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) who received 44 percent of the vote in the 2013 general election and who were showing signs of great support before they were ordered to disband back in November.
Other ballots just showed a big cross through the whole paper or crosses marked next to every party, rendering the ballot ruined.
Images circulating online, purportedly taken inside the ballot box today : Invalid ballots with messages, stating that they vote for CNRP and that the elections aren't free and fair #electionkh #Cambodia pic.twitter.com/SO9Sx0Jypy
— Katrin Travouillon (@KTravouillon) July 29, 2018
This was a small sign of protest for the disillusioned electorate of a country that hasn’t seen a change in leadership in over 30 years.
But despite these efforts, a win for Hun Sen and the CPP was never in doubt.
Blueprint for dictatorship
His sweeping win and seeming lack of punishment by the international community has some commentators concerned that other Southeast Asian strongmen could learn from Hun Sen’s example.
“The dismantling of democracy could set a dangerous precedent for Southeast Asia as a whole, where authoritarian rulers sadly often look to each other for inspiration,” ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights chairperson and member of the Malaysian Parliament, Charles Santiago, said in a statement on Sunday.
“The ease with which Hun Sen has co-opted state institutions and grabbed power for his own party must not become a blueprint for the region.”
— APHR (@ASEANMP) July 29, 2018
The only hope of reproach comes from the international community.
While Hun Sen will trumpet Sunday’s high turnout as a sign of confidence in his party’s leadership, internationally it is unlikely to sway perception of the fairness of the election, Strangio says.
The European Union is likely to review the Everything But Arms (EBA) trade preferences, which are dependent on respect for a number of international human rights treaties and ILO labor rights conventions, which Robertson claims Cambodia has systematically violated.
The US is also expected to launch further targeted sanctions against key rights abusers in Hun Sen’s administration.
But until then, Cambodians will carry on as normal tomorrow knowing they have little political recourse.
“It is uncertain what the future holds for Cambodian democracy,” our anonymous non-voter said. “Our democracy has already slid backward so much. I was speechless to see the election today.”