Phnom Penh, Cambodia – After polling in Cambodia’s election came to a close, some in the capital feared the worst.
Vehicles hastily filed up at gas stations, while others made a dash to take wads of cash from ATMs. On Phnom Penh’s main boulevards, barricades were set up and military police deployed in case unrest erupted.
Just a few kilometres away in the capital’s Meanchey district, an angry mob had materialised after voters at a polling station there grew angry when they failed to find their names on the official voter list.
Then, shortly before 8pm, news of the election results came in and the tension on the streets seemed to defuse.
There are so many irregularities that were exposed even before voting day. We know that this was a foregone conclusion; that the ruling party organised the election in such a way as to secure victory even before voting day.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had won 68 seats to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party’s (CNRP) 55 seats. It was the first decline in support for Cambodia’s ruling party in 20 years of democracy, and the worst showing in the National Assembly since 1998, just one year after Prime Minister Hun Sen violently ousted then prime minister Norodom Ranariddh from power in factional fighting that played out on the streets of Phnom Penh.
Election monitors estimated prior to the vote that more than 1 million names were missing from the national voter list. On election day, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia also announced at a press conference that “many” people had arrived at polling stations to find that someone had already voted in their place, though it did not provide a precise breakdown of the number of cases.
CNRP president Sam Rainsy called Monday for the creation of a special committee – including representatives from both parties and international experts – to investigate the vote-fraud allegations.
“There are so many irregularities that were exposed even before voting day,” Sam Rainsy told Al Jazeera. “We know that this was a foregone conclusion; that the ruling party organised the election in such a way as to secure victory even before voting day.”
The National Election Committee, meanwhile, has denied that any irregularities had occurred.
Calls for change
Analysts say the massive drop in support for the CPP, which controlled 90 seats in the National Assembly after 2008’s election, will lead to a period of soul searching for the ruling party and oblige it to reform in order to survive.
“I think the desire for change stems from a few factors,” said Professor John Ciorciari at the University of Michigan’s Center for Southeast Asian Studies.
“The CPP’s appeal as the party that stabilised the country has tended to ebb over time, as voters become accustomed to stability and demand more from their government with respect to economic opportunity and the rule of law.”
Ciorciari added the CPP has gradually transformed from a party of relative have-nots to a party of privilege, and its patronage system has generated rising public resentment.
“Calls for change come both from voters keen to see the CPP reform, and from those who want to replace the government altogether,” he said.
In the run-up to Sunday’s election, calls for change were evident for all to see.
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Snake-like motorcycle convoys full of opposition supporters – often in their thousands – would meander through the streets shouting “doh,” the word for change in Khmer. An estimated 100,000 people were on the streets to welcome Sam Rainsy back to the country on July 19, after he received a royal pardon for crimes that most critics say were politically motivated.
They called for an end to human rights abuses, such as land evictions, and said they were fed up with the country’s corrupt elite.
As Cambodians were busy voting on Sunday, Rainsy was meeting voters in Phnom Penh’s Doem Kor market where an ecstatic crowd had gathered with wide grins and smart phones to catch a glimpse or take a photograph of the opposition leader.
It has been quite a comeback for Rainsy, who did not stand as a candidate in the election as he was deemed a criminal when his party’s list of candidates was submitted to the NEC earlier this year.
For nearly four years he has been in self-imposed exile living in Paris and Cambodians -particularly in rural areas – have heard next to nothing from him over the period.
But in the months before Sunday’s vote, his party led a successful campaign based on curbing institutional corruption, raising the minimum wage for civil servants and factory workers, and the more controversial issue of the presence of ethnic Vietnamese people living in the country.
On the campaign trail, Rainsy would often describe Vietnamese by using the derogatory term “Youn”, and said they were pouring into the country illegally to take jobs that everyday Cambodians can do.
The claim is somewhat exaggerated, but it generated much sympathy among rural voters.
This shows the political maturity of Cambodian people. Despite the vitriolic racist campaign, despite empty promises, Cambodian people chose the CPP.
Whatever the reasons for the huge surge in support for the opposition, the election results will send a strong message for the CPP that things need to change inside the party, said Information Minister Khieu Kanharith.
“This shows the political maturity of Cambodian people. Despite the vitriolic racist campaign, despite empty promises, Cambodian people chose the CPP,” Kanharith said in an email moments after his party announced the results.
“At the same time, this is also a wake-up call for the CPP not to sleep on its realizations. We need to improve our work. But the strong point of CPP is that this party has the ability to readapt, to change and know how to take advantage of the most difficult situation.”
One senior secretary of state within the CPP, who spoke on the condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak with the media, said the results would bring about a period of “soul searching”.
“The CPP will have a more difficult time in the National Assembly. There will be more policy discussions … Now with the electorate diminishing in number, this should give impetus to the CPP to move forward with difficult reforms.”
The opposition says there are huge irregularities with the country’s voter list, and also complained nearly every media outlet in the country is controlled by the ruling party.
“I think there are many people who are affected from missing names in the voter list,” said Koul Panya, executive director of Comfrel, at a press conference held just moments after polls shut on Sunday. “But the size of the problem I don’t know. In the past it happened to 400,000 people.”
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He added the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia would release a more detailed account of any irregularities uncovered in early August.
Whatever complaints may still arise, the ruling CPP still has a sizeable majority in the country’s National Assembly. Its members still take up nearly every senior position in government, and Prime Minister Hun Sen – for the time being at least – retains extreme loyalty.
Some Cambodians expressed unhappiness with the CPP’s win. Loun Sovath is a Buddhist monk awarded the 2012 Martin Ennals Award for Human Rights Defenders for documenting the struggle of land rights activists in Cambodia.
“I am not so happy right now, because society is not so free and fair … We cannot find justice and independence in anything,” Sovath said.