Cambodian Election Results Signal Discontent with Autocratic Regime

< back to Freedom At Issue Blog

The steep gains for the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in Sunday’s elections reveal increasing public discontent with the three-decade stranglehold of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) on political and economic power in the country. Though the election results are awaiting official confirmation from the National Election Committee (NEC), it has been widely reported that the CPP will be left with a reduced parliamentary majority of 68 seats in the lower house, while the CNRP will pick up 26 seats for a new total of 55. These results could significantly alter the character and operation of the national legislature. The CPP has enough seats to form a government, but the loss of its two-thirds supermajority will prevent the party from pushing through constitutional amendments without opposition support.  A reported 69 percent of Cambodians voted in Sunday’s elections, a decline from 75 percent in the 2008 elections.

The gains registered by the CNRP are remarkable considering the CPP’s longtime dominance of a highly centralized, patronage-based authoritarian political system that is also riddled with corruption and plagued by chronically weak rule of law. Over the course of 30 years in power, Hun Sen and the CPP ensured a sharply tilted playing field that all but precluded genuine political competition. Power is concentrated in the office of the prime minister, with little to no institutional checks on Hun Sen’s authority. The dismal state of press freedom, combined with an active but less-than-influential civil society, also deprives the citizenry of ways to constrain autocratic power.

In the lead-up to Sunday’s elections, the ruling party leveraged its control over virtually all media outlets by permitting only 30 minutes a day of opposition campaigning to be broadcast on television or radio, while pro-CPP material played around the clock. The police, the military, the NEC, and the judiciary all used their formal and informal authority to favor the CPP, in part by creating an atmosphere of intimidation to stifle dissent, underscored by arrests of land rights activists and other dissidents. Senior police and military personnel took to the streets, visibly campaigning for the CPP and giving voters a reason to fear for their safety if they supported the opposition. The NEC, a purportedly independent body tasked with administering professional, nonpartisan elections, admitted to using flawed voter lists that are widely believed to have worked to the advantage of the ruling party. The Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) and the opposition also accused the NEC of using removable ink to mark ballots and stain voters’ fingers, enabling fraud and disenfranchisement.

Fraudulent voter lists spurred violent incidents in Phnom Penh, where voters set two military vehicles on fire after they could not find their names on the registry. Surveys conducted by Comfrel showed that more than 10 percent, or 1.25 million, of the electorate’s names may have been absent from voter lists. CNRP leaders also alleged that the CPP exploited the names of deceased people and Cambodians working abroad that remained on the rolls. Claims of double voting and identity theft were bolstered by reports that many individuals arrived at the polls to find records indicating that they had already voted.

Under these conditions, the opposition never had a fair chance of dislodging the CPP through the ballot box, but mounting public discontent has weakened the CPP’s grip on power. CNRP president Sam Rainsy and vice president Kem Sokha have rejected the election outcome, noting that the CPP’s reported margin of victory could be erased if those who were improperly blocked from voting were allowed to cast ballots.

Freedom House supports the call for an investigation into the election irregularities. With the difference in the popular vote estimated as low as 0.6 percent, the faulty voter lists and related abuses must be addressed if the victorious party is to govern with democratic legitimacy.

Photo Credit: Phnom Penh Post | Heng Chivoan | http://www.phnompenhpost.com/national/big-opposition-gains

Analyses and recommendations offered by the authors do not necessarily reflect those of Freedom House.

Share this story