Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC), the top electoral body, acknowledged Monday that as many as nine percent of ballots cast in the weekend’s general election were invalid, with an observer suggesting that many of the votes were intentionally spoiled to protest what was seen as a bogus poll.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) claimed a lopsided victory in the election, saying it won some 77 percent of the vote and likely secured all 125 parliamentary seats in play as voters, many under threat of losing government services, ratified an outcome decided in November when the government dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
The NEC said more than 82 percent of registered voters cast 6,946,164 ballots—suggesting that a boycott called for by the CNRP failed in the face of threats from authorities to withhold licenses, land registration and other government services from voters who did not turn out.
But the committee acknowledged that 596,775 or 8.59% of ballots were invalid, up from 1.6 percent in the country’s 2013 general election.
When asked on Monday about how the ballots had been made invalid, NEC spokesman Hang Puthea refused to comment, but he said that some voters had “expressed their opinions” on some of the ballots, instead of checking a box to select one of the 20 listed political parties.
While he did not comment on what opinions had been expressed, Hang Puthea said that some voters had drawn images of the sun—a symbol of the CNRP—or other pictures.
“The invalidated ballots were those written in a way that allow people to recognize the identity of the voter, and included words or numbers,” he said.
Independent political commentator Meas Ny told RFA that the invalid ballots had been purposefully spoiled.
He said that amid official threats, many voters felt compelled to cast their ballot, but had invalidated them to show their support for the CNRP’s boycott campaign.
Meas Ny also suggested that the number of invalid ballots may have been higher than what the NEC announced.
“We believe the number of spoiled ballots is significant, but we have been unable to verify it or fact-check because the NEC lacks an independent mechanism to do so,” he said.
“During the [local] commune election in 2017, we had NEC members from other political parties [the CNRP] and [independent] election observers were present at both the local and national levels, so the NEC didn’t need to try to claim independence [from the ruling party]. These days, no one completely trusts what the NEC says.”
While ballots are still being counted and an official announcement is not expected until mid-August, unconfirmed preliminary results indicate a strong CPP showing, ensuring long-ruling strongman Hun Sen will add another five-year term to his 33 years in office.
On Monday, in a statement issued from Jakarta, Indonesia, CNRP officials living in self-imposed exile slammed what they called a “sham election,” and called on the international community to reject its outcome.
“July 29 marks the funeral of democracy in Cambodia and will be seen as one of the darkest days of the country’s history,” the statement said, adding that “the choice and the will of the Cambodian people was taken away even before the election started … [when the CNRP was] smashed by the politically motivated judgement of the Supreme Court.”
“The international community must not recognize the sham election organized by the biased, so-called NEC, and governments around the globe should refrain from doing business with Hun Sen’s regime,” it said.
“The CNRP will continue to act as a political party representing the people of Cambodia.”
Meanwhile, governments from around the world registered their concerns with the election following a statement from the White House on Sunday, which expressed regret that the polls “were neither free nor fair and failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people.”
Late on Sunday, Canada’s Global Affairs office said in a statement that it was “troubled by undemocratic elections” in Cambodia, and urged the country’s government to “reinstate freedom of expression and political participation” and release CNRP president Kem Sokha, who has been held in pre-trial detention since September last year on charges of plotting a coup.
On Monday, the European Union said in a statement that “the lack of genuine electoral competition and the absence of an inclusive political process mean that the 29 July election is not representative of the democratic will of the Cambodian electorate, and therefore its outcome lacks credibility.”
Spokesperson Maja Kocijancic said the EU expects Cambodian authorities to “restore democracy,” engage in dialogue with the opposition, and to “create conditions conducive to free political debate and competition,” and said the bloc stands ready to assist.
Both the U.S. and EU had withdrawn support for the elections ahead of Sunday, citing actions seen as limiting democracy in Cambodia, and the EU is currently reviewing a preferential trade scheme for Cambodian exports amid Hun Sen’s political crackdown.
Also on Monday, the office of Australia’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Julie Bishop issued a statement highlighting “serious concerns” with the election, which it said had “reversed more than 25 years of progress towards democracy in Cambodia.”
“Australia is disappointed that Cambodian people have been unable to freely choose their representatives,” the statement said, adding that Canberra would “continue to urge the Cambodian Government to take steps to allow free and open political debate without violence and intimidation.”
The polls also drew condemnation from Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament and chairperson of the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR), who said they were “marked by widespread political repression.”
“This election marks a dark day in Cambodia’s history,” he said, adding that “millions of Cambodians were denied a genuine choice as the CPP’s victory was guaranteed even before the first ballot was cast.”
“Nothing can take away from the fact that this was a sham election. The international community, including ASEAN countries, must stay vigilant and ensure that the world does not forget about Cambodia after these polls have closed.”
Phil Roberson of New York-based Human Rights Watch told Agence France-Presse in an interview from Phnom Penh on Monday that Cambodia’s “flawed” election signalled the “final ringing of the bell for democracy in Cambodia.”
“With such an overwhelming majority for the CPP … the parliament becomes a little bit irrelevant because the government can rule by fiat, knowing that anything that they want to do can be rubber-stamped” by lawmakers, he said.
“The key issue is what the international community is going to do about this next?”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.