The ruling Cambodian People’s Party claimed victory in a general election Sunday, capturing nearly all 125 seats in a one-sided contest as voters, many under threat of losing government services, ratified an outcome decided in November when Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government dissolved the main opposition party.
Unconfirmed preliminary results indicated that the ruling CPP secured 123 out of 125 parliamentary seats, ensuring long-ruling strongman Hun Sen will add another five-year term to his 33 years in office. Two small parties gained one seat each in parliament.
The National Election Committee (NEC) said the turnout rate was 6.8 million registered voters, or 82.2 percent – suggesting that a boycott called for by the Cambodian National Rescue Party failed in the face of threats from authorities to withhold licenses, land registration and other government services from voters who did not turn out.
National Police chief General Neth Savoeun said all polling stations across the country closed without violence, threat or any incidents.
The Supreme Court’s dissolution of the CNRP in November and the arrest of its president, Kem Sokha in September – on spurious insurrection charges -- as well as a months-long crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, were widely seen as Hun Sen’s way of ensuring he stays in power.
The Associated Press quoted exiled former CNRP leaser Sam Rainsy as saying from Paris that “it is a meaningless victory because (Hun Sen) won without any real challenger ... prior to the election he dissolved the only credible opposition party."
The White House expressed regret that the Sunday's polls "were neither free nor fair and failed to represent the will of the Cambodian people."
"The flawed elections, which excluded the country’s principal opposition party, represent the most significant setback yet to the democratic system enshrined in Cambodia’s constitution, and substantially erode Cambodia’s achievements in promoting political reconciliation and economic growth since the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement," the White House press secretary said in a statement.
"We are profoundly disappointed in the government’s choice to disenfranchise millions of voters, who are rightly proud of their country’s development over the past 25 years," the secretary added.
Cambodian and international rights groups, as well as most Western governments, regarded Sunday’s vote as illegitimate, and the vote drew comparisons to rigged elections in places like Russia, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
Taking no chances, the government registered tens of thousands of election monitors from a youth group led by one of Hun Sen's sons.
While U.S. and European monitors, as well as established domestic and Asian poll-watching groups, shunned the vote as illegitimate, the NEC brought in CPP-affiliated groups and several Western outfits led by a notorious “observer for hire,” a group of 23 recognized election observer groups said in a statement.
“The presence of untrained, so-called election observers is deplorable as it is highly prejudicial to the integrity of the polls,” they said in a statement.
“Inviting organizations and personalities with questionable motives and methodologies desecrates the inherently neutral process that is election monitoring,” the statement said.
Sanctions or trade embargo?
The Cambodian government blocked at least 17 websites over the election weekend. The blocked websites included Radio Free Asia, the Voice of Democracy, The Phnom Penh Post and the Cambodia Daily.
The daughter of jailed opposition leader Kem Sokha, Kem Monovitya, told RFA’s Khmer Service that fake Facebook pages were falsely saying that her jailed father had appealed to the Cambodian people to go to vote. She appealed to the people not to believe any sources calling on people to vote.
Australian broadcaster ABC filmed Cambodian Information Khieu Kanharith casting his ballot in Phnom Penh and then handing over $200 in cash that the network confirmed was later distributed to 10 Cambodian reporters.
Cambodian Americans gathered at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Sunday to protest the election results and confirm plans to push for the passage of Cambodia Democracy Act of 2018, CNRP deputy leader Eng Chhay Ieng said.
The bill, which won U.S. House of Representatives approval on July 25, would allow Washington to bar Cambodian officials deemed responsible for limiting democracy in the country from entering the U.S. and block any assets or property they possess.
“The important thing is whether sanctions include only asset freezes and visa restrictions, or will also lead to a trade embargo as well. That is what we are waiting to see,” political analyst Meas Ny told RFA.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan shrugged off the Democracy Act, noting that it still has to be drafted and passed by the U.S. Senate. He said Cambodian leaders would not be affected as they don’t have assets in the United States and have no need to travel there.
Some Cambodian officials have faced U.S. visa restrictions since last year.
The White House statement said Washington "will consider additional steps to respond to the elections and other recent setbacks to democracy and human rights in Cambodia, including a significant expansion of the visa restrictions announced on December 6, 2017."
Rights groups have urged the international community in recent weeks to reject the election results, demand the immediate reinstatement of the CNRP and the release of Kem Sokha and all other members and supporters, and call on the government to create conditions enabling the holding of a fresh election that complies with international standards.
Reported and translated by RFA’s Khmer Service. Written in English by Paul Eckert.