Cambodia’s electoral authority has released the official results of the country’s communal/sangkat elections, confirming the lopsided victory of Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
The National Election Committee (NEC) announced yesterday that the CPP won 74.3% of the vote in the June 5 elections, followed by the opposition Candlelight Party (CLP) with 22.3%, proportions roughly in line with the provisional results it published in day after the election. The remaining slice of the vote was distributed among a number of micro-parties. For the CPP, this resulted in 1,648 of the country’s 1,652 commune chief positions, with the CLP winning the other four.
The electoral committee said 80.19% of the country’s 9.2 million registered voters cast ballots at local polls, which elect chiefs and councilors of the country’s communes and sangkats, the administrative level above the village. .
This was a remarkably high turnout for an election whose outcome was in many ways predetermined. The CPP has a virtual monopoly on power, which it has wielded to destructive effect since the last communal election in 2017, when the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) managed to win 43.8 percent of the vote – a proportion similar to what he won in the 2013 national elections.
The CPP responded by arresting CNRP chairman Kem Sokha for treason and banning the party, driving most of its leaders into exile. The government has opened a second front against the country’s independent press and civil society groups. This left the CPP free to run virtually unopposed in the 2018 national elections, in which it “won” all 125 seats in the National Assembly, as well as inherit the commune/sangkat positions of the banned CNRP.
Given the CPP’s stranglehold on the state apparatus, the Asian Network for Free Elections predicted ahead of the elections that they would be far from “fair, credible, transparent, inclusive and peaceful”. In the aftermath of the election, the CLP also claims that the election was marred by fraud, vote buying and other electoral irregularities.
The CLP is the latest incarnation of the party founded in 1995 by opposition figure Sam Rainsy, who has lived in exile since late 2015 and claims the role of successor to the CNRP. But Hun Sen’s government has since the election made it clear that its seemingly more relaxed attitude toward political opposition does not extend to all political freedoms.
On June 14, lawyers acting on behalf of the government sued Son Chhay, the vice-president of the CLP, for having “seriously damaged” the reputation of the ruling party. His offence? Highlighting the obvious drawbacks facing Cambodian opposition parties, from the obvious pro-government bias of the NEC to the widespread vote buying and political pressure that accompanies each election cycle.
On the same day, a court in Phnom Penh sentenced 31 opposition activists to long prison terms for incitement and conspiracy against the Hun Sen administration – unfinished business since the political crackdown of the last election cycle. This included the arrest of prominent Cambodian-American legal activist Theary Seng, who has since been transferred to a remote prison in northern Cambodia, presumably to make it difficult for him to access legal and consular advice.
The authorities of Kampong Thom province have also stopped a freshly elected CLP commune chief – one of only four from the opposition party – based on a 2002 “robbery”. The arrest warrant for Nhim Sarom was issued in 2012, but never was executed only on June 21.
All of this underscores the tightly circumscribed nature of the CPP’s new political regime. Indeed, one of the reasons the government allowed the reactivation of the PLC at the end of last year was that it deepened the rifts between the political camps of Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, whose parties had merged to form the CNRP in 2012 and whose unity had underpinned party policy. hit. That fissure has now widened into a seemingly impassable chasm, removing, at least for now, the threat of a unified opposition challenging Hun Sen’s power.
Cambodia’s deviation away from the edge of de jure one-party rule has stopped short of a meaningful adherence to the principle of popular sovereignty. The CLP is granted limited freedom of maneuver, strictly fenced and patrolled, beyond which it must proceed with extreme caution.