It is typically customary for politicians who emerge victorious in elections to give victory speeches and revel in the adulation of supporters once the results of the ballot are officially called. But in the immediate aftermath of last week’s general election in Cambodia — underpinned and perhaps undermined by myriad irregularities — Prime Minister Hun Sen decided to go underground for a few days to reflect on what the election results mean to him and to his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Hun Sen was awarded a fresh, five-year mandate but the CPP’s number of seats in the country’s National Assembly plummeted from 90 to 68, affording them an uncomfortable thirteen seat cushion over the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). The leader of the CNRP, Sam Rainsy, has not been silent and has instead expressed outrage over the vote, rejecting the results, claiming victory for his own party, and demanding a United Nations investigation into instances of voter fraud.
Evidence of fraud has been mounting, as detailed in a report published by New York-based Human Rights Watch:
“Senior ruling party officials appear to have been involved in issuing fake election documents and fraudulently registering voters in multiple provinces,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “And people from the party seem to have been turning up in places where they clearly don’t live and insisting on voting – not to mention the many other claims of fraud around the country.”
A CPP village chief, who asked for anonymity to protect his security, gave Human Rights Watch an insider’s account of how ruling party authorities in his district engaged in electoral fraud by issuing fraudulent “Identity Certificates for Elections” (ICE) before the July 28 elections. The certificates allow people whose names appear on voter registration lists to vote even though they otherwise lack proper identification documents.
The village chief, whose local CPP superiors worked under instructions from a CPP Center-Level Work Team headed by an army general and a CPP Central Committee member, told Human Rights Watch that his immediate party superiors directly oversaw the illegal issuance of certificates. He explained that a member of the general’s team gave the instructions to issue certificates in the names of villagers who were on the voter registration rolls but were known either to be dead or to have long left their original homes.
Citizens were also barred from voting in other polling stations, including in the capital city of Phnom Penh’s Stung Mean Chey district, where several people could not located their names on voter registration lists or had found that their names had been used to vote by someone else. That dispute resulted in a brief period of disorder which included rock throwing, a flipped over police cruiser set ablaze, and a few warning shots fired into the air.
Even under the dubious “declared” results, the CPP’s victory is an embarrassing one for them. But to take it a step further and acknowledge the widespread fraud which allegedly took place might just give credence to CNRP claims that they were jobbed.
When Hun Sen finally emerged on Friday, he was adamant that the will of the people had been actualized and that he would be forming a government with or without the CNRP sitting in the assembly as the main opposition. However, CPP elite might be forced to make tangible policy changes in response to the electorate’s rebuke or risk losing power in five years time.
“This is…a wake-up call for the CPP not to sleep on its realizations. We need to improve our work,” said Information Minister Khieu Kanharith.
Part of the CPP’s legacy is peace and stability which they oversaw following decades of civil war, despite several prominent players having been willing participants in the conflict. However, as peace has become a constant, the population’s priorities have shifted to a higher emphasis on economic gains and social mobility. Many Cambodians have grown disgusted with the culture of corruption, nepotism, and impunity that has become part and parcel of the CPP’s legacy as well.
Indeed, income inequality has become an unfortunate wedge issue for the CPP, highlighted in this space in recent weeks. Its point was hammered home by longtime Australian journalist Luke Hunt in a recent column for The Diplomat Magazine:
The government made few, if any, policy statements during the campaign, opting instead to parade in their expensive four-wheel-drives worth US$100,000 each — most Cambodians are lucky if they make US$100 a month – across the capital in small convoys.
The narrative which emerged in the weeks leading up to the vote was one of political change, manifested by the scores of mostly young Cambodians who took to the streets on motobikes brazenly hoisting the CNRP flag while screaming “doh,” the Khmer word for change.
A source who works closely with important CPP leaders at a university in Phnom Penh spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on behalf of his associates that the party was deeply troubled that the message of change was being exported from the well-educated class residing in the capital to the outlying provinces in the Cambodian periphery. Many Cambodians come to Phnom Penh solely for employment opportunities, and must register and vote back in the provinces they were born in.
The past few days have been relatively quiet in terms of protests. Rumors have abounded on social media forums like Facebook and Twitter about everything from spontaneous demonstrations which failed to materialize to whisper of Hun Sen’s resignation — the latter being completely untrue. But with Sam Rainsy in the country to stay, at least for the time being, this political fight is far from over. In fact, it has only just begun.