Cambodia’s ruling and opposition parties both claimed victory on Monday in commune elections held over the weekend, with at least 20 days to go before an expected official count is tallied by the country’s top electoral body.
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.
Preliminary results released by political parties showed slightly more than 51 percent of the popular vote going to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and around 46 percent going to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), under Kem Sokha.
The CPP won 1163 of 1,646 commune chief posts up for grabs in the ballot, while the CNRP won 482, results showed. One post went to the Khmer National United Party—one of 10 other smaller parties that had competed in Sunday’s vote.
On Monday, Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for 32 years, took to his Facebook page to rebuff claims that the CPP had “lost” the election, saying “these people cannot see the forest through the trees.”
“The [opposition] plan to control the majority of the commune councilors, who are electors of the Senate, in order to take over the Senate and the position of Head of State in the absence of the King, has already failed,” he wrote.
“They campaigned that in 2017, they would take over the communes and the Senate, and in 2018, the National Assembly [parliament]. In the future, the CPP remains in control of the majority of the Senate.”
Hun Sen also noted that, based on unofficial results, the CPP received more votes in the election than any other party and 300,000 more votes than it had in Cambodia’s 2013 general election, suggesting “support for the party continues to increase.”
“I hope other parties know how to calculate their own number of votes by comparing it to the number of seats at the National Assembly,” he said.
“This clearly confirms that the CPP will remain the majority party in the National Assembly and further lead the Royal Government. The election in 2018 will not differ from this election … I would like to thank all leaders and members of the CPP at all levels for helping bring about this new victory.”
Also on Monday, Kem Sokha issued a statement thanking CNRP members for their support, and said that despite “threats and persecution” against his party and the citizens of Cambodia, as well as “unresolved irregularities,” this year’s commune election had resulted in significant gains for the opposition.
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. Hun Sen's government had since 2015 harassed and threatened jail sentences for key CNRP leaders in a wider crackdown on civil society.
Kem Sokha noted that the CNRP had won nearly 500 commune seats—a 12-fold increase from the 40 won by his former Human Rights Party (HRP) and ex-CNRP president Sam Rainsy’s former Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) in 2012—and that the opposition had taken “almost half of commune councilor posts nationwide.” The SRP formed the CNRP with the HRP ahead of Cambodia’s 2013 general elections.
“Based on [preliminary] results that we took seats from the ruling party in large number, it shows that the CNRP has received another big achievement in grabbing victory for leading the communes,” the statement said.
Kem Sokha said that past elections in Cambodia have shown that votes for opposition parties increase by 15 percent in general elections over those for commune elections, suggesting the CNRP is well positioned for next year’s ballot.
“Once again, I would like to call on our compatriots, as well CNRP activists, to continue the march with the CNRP towards grabbing victory and attaining our goal for positive change in the upcoming 2018 national election,” he said.
Final official results of the two-week contest for 1,646 commune council posts will not be announced until June 25, according to the National Election Commission (NEC), which said Monday that its preliminary results had been delayed until June 6 due to “technical issues.”
NEC spokesperson Hang Puthea said that the commission had so far received 45 complaints from political parties—most of which were lodged by the CPP and CNRP with regards to failure to comply with election procedures—and is investigating how to resolve them.
Seven of the political parties who competed in the commune elections, but did not win a position, on Monday praised the weekend ballot as more free and fair than past votes, and pledged to take part in next year’s general elections.
Meanwhile, a statement Monday from the Situation Room group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—including the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), Licadho, and Adhoc—also found the election “at most polling stations” to have proceeded “smoothly, safely and peacefully.”
The group said, however, that it had registered a number of irregularities, including shortage of election materials, the presence of unauthorized authorities, and prohibition of observers.
Generally, the environment for ballot counting on Monday at the polling stations “went smoothly and in accordance with legal procedures,” the statement said.
The commune elections also drew praise from several international organizations and governments.
Deputy Secretary-General of Centrists Asia Pacific Democrats International (CAPDI) Yosril Ananta Baharuddin called the ballot “free, fair, secret and credible,” while the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA), which provided technical support to the NEC, said in a statement that the election had proceeded “peacefully.”
The European Union ambassador to Cambodia George Edgar told RFA’s Khmer Service that based on what he and his team observed, the voting process and ballot counting went “smoothly.”
The U.S. Embassy in Phnom Penh called on political parties and relevant election stakeholders to “accept the results of the election peacefully and in a spirit of reconciliation and cooperation,” adding that it will “continue to monitor events as the NEC tabulates and announces the results.”
Hun Sen had warned opposition parties against challenging the outcome of Sunday’s vote, saying the country’s courts could dissolve the parties for doing so. The CNRP nearly unseated Hun Sen in 2013 elections and claimed it only lost due to voter fraud.
Associate professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College Sophal Ear told RFA that the CNRP’s performance in the commune elections amounted to a win “against fear, intimidation, and electoral abuse,” adding that the CPP had “barely won the majority.”
“Hun Sen's party went from nearly 62 percent of the vote down to 51 percent; this is an 11 percentage point decrease. In other countries, a performance like this would make the party re-think its strategy, maybe even rethink its choice of Prime Minister before disaster strikes,” he said.
“It's good to retire when you're on top instead of when you are forced to quit.”
Sophal Ear noted that in winning 46 percent of the popular vote, the CNRP saw a 15 percentage point increase over around 31 percent in total as the HRP and SRP during the 2012 commune election.
“If the CNRP thought its bar was to do better than 2012, then it clearly produced results,” he said.
The opposition party has a legitimate shot at unseating Hun Sen in 2018, Sophal Ear said, “if the CNRP is not dissolved before then.”
“[This election] shows that despite incredible arm-twisting, the people are not afraid—the people want change.”
Reported by Nareth Muong, Sothearin Yeang, Sel San, Vuthy Tha, Sokunthea Hong, Hour Hum, Chanthy Men and Vanndeth Van for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.