Polls held over the weekend to elect Cambodia’s local leaders were likely tainted by the nation’s political environment in the lead up to the vote, an opposition official said Tuesday, but a ruling party official argued that the ballot has already been labeled free and fair.
Speaking during a call-in show with RFA’s Khmer Service, main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) spokesperson Yim Sovann said electoral improvements made by the National Election Committee (NEC) represented only one side of the coin for the June 4 commune elections.
“To judge whether it was a free and fair election, we must base our decision on two factors: the political environment prior to election and the carrying out of duties by the NEC,” said the spokesperson, whose CNRP earned around 46 percent of the popular vote, compared to 51 percent for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), based on preliminary results.
“The political environment prior to the election was the worst [part of the process], due to threats, intimidation and war rhetoric—including threats of sacrificing 100-200 leaders of the opposition party for the sake of the [greater population], as well as those from the national defense minister.”
The 14-day campaign period that began on May 20 was relatively calm, but took place against the backdrop of frequent warnings from Hun Sen that opposition victories on Sunday and in parliamentary polls in 2018 would bring chaos, instability and war to Cambodia; and from defense minister Tea Banh, who said that the army would “smash the teeth” of anyone protesting a CPP election win.
Yim Sovann said such warnings had “affected the feelings of the public” ahead of the election, adding that Hun Sen's government had since 2015 harassed and threatened jail sentences for key CNRP leaders in a wider crackdown on civil society that he suggested also may have influenced the ballot.
Slightly more than 7 million Cambodians, or 89.52 percent of registered voters, turned out for commune council polls on Sunday, a record turnout in a test of public opinion ahead of 2018 general elections.
According to government-affiliated Fresh News, unofficial results showed the CPP won 22 provinces while the CNRP won two major cities, Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, as well as Kompong Cham province.
The CPP secured 1163 commune/sangkat chief posts, the CNRP won 482; and one commune leader post went to the Khmer National United Party, Fresh News said.
Final official results of the two-week contest for 1,646 commune council posts will not be announced until June 25, though preliminary results were expected from the NEC on Tuesday.
Yim Sovann said his party had a strong showing in the weekend polls because “the people have faith and trust in the CNRP, and they want change.”
“They want a new leader to reform the country, to ensure justice and real democracy, and eliminate corruption … and settle other problems at the local and national level.”
He acknowledged that the CNRP has “yet to receive the kind of support we would like from rural areas,” where the CPP continued to hold the majority of commune posts.
CPP spokesperson Sok Ey San, who also spoke to RFA during a call-in show, said the preliminary results of the popular vote spoke to the ruling party’s continued support in Cambodia.
“The CPP received 3.5 million votes, equivalent to more than 51 percent, while the CNRP received only 3 million votes, leaving a 500,000-vote difference,” he said.
“In comparison to the 2013 [general] election, the CPP received 300,000 additional votes, while the CNRP received only 90,000 additional votes … This shows that the level of support for the CPP has not weakened, although we lost a number of commune/sangkat chiefs.”
Sok Ey San rejected Yim Sovann’s suggestion that the election could not be seen as completely free and fair, calling the CNRP’s viewpoint “subjective and unacceptable.”
“The political environment in Cambodia before and during the election has already been assessed by both local and international observers as having gone smoothly and in accordance with democratic principles,” he said.
He also dismissed CNRP claims that the CPP had engaged in threats of war ahead of the election, saying his party had campaigned for “peace and development,” while the opposition promoted “discrimination between Cambodian classes and racism.”
“Such a platform is likely to stir up chaos or war—this is just an explanation to the citizens, not a threat,” he said.
Meanwhile, congratulations continued to pour in from the international community in recognition of Cambodia’s successful commune elections, with observers urging all stakeholders to remain civil ahead of the NEC’s expected announcement of official results on June 25.
“We congratulate the people of Cambodia for exercising their right to engage in the political process and participate in democracy,” a spokesperson for the Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh said in a statement Tuesday.
“Ahead of an announcement of the official outcomes later this month, Australia encourages all parties to continue to engage constructively. The Australian Embassy closely monitors political developments in Cambodia, and will continue to do so.”
Naoaki Kamoshida, counselor at the Embassy of Japan, issued a statement noting that the commune election had been “carried out smoothly and peacefully, in general.”
“The Embassy of Japan hopes the process after the voting will proceed smoothly in accordance with the relevant regulations and procedures.”
The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) said the June 4 polls were likely to help advance democracy in Cambodia, and called on the government to ensure that the country’s political environment remains free from fear and laws are enforced to maintain the integrity of election process.
“ANFREL acknowledges the success of election day operations, with voting found to be generally smooth, high voter turnout across the country and relatively few incidents to report,” the group said.
Reported by Sothearin Yeang, Vandeth Vann, and Thai Tha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.