A man rests on a motorcycle near billboards promoting Prime Minister Hun Sen ahead of the election, to be held July 29, 2018. (Manan Vatsyayana/AFP/Getty Images)

Unable to run for office, a leader of Cambodia’s now-dissolved main opposition party did the only thing he felt he could: He held up his index finger at a gathering with dozens of other opposition supporters like himself and posted a photo of the gesture on Facebook

The finger was unstained. Chea Chiv is taking part in the “clean finger” campaign promoting a boycott of Sunday’s elections. “Clean finger” is a reference to the India ink that election authorities use to stain voters’ index fingers on polling day to indicate that they have cast their ballots. After the dissolution of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in November, those fighting back against an election widely decried as illegitimate say that not going to the polls, and therefore not getting inked, is their only option.

But Chea Chiv is on the run, charged with incitement as the government cracks down on even this last form of protest. On Thursday, authorities found him and four others guilty, and imposed fines of 10 million riels (or about $2,470), about twice the annual household income in Cambodia.

“I can’t stay at my own home, as there are charges against me,” he told The Washington Post. “I have found a safe place,” he added, vowing to continue his boycott calls from there via social media. 

This latest pre-election crackdown shows just how nervous the government of authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen is, even as he prepares to extend his over-three-decade grip on power in this Southeast Asian country.

The government insists that the vote will be free and fair, touting the participation of other political parties and a historically large number of election monitors. But critics note the lack of any viable opposition, the insignificance of the other parties and the muzzling of independent news media in the lead-up to the vote — all engineered, the critics say, to secure a win for Hun Sen after his ruling party almost lost power to the opposition in 2013. The CNRP’s leader, Kem Sokha, remains in a remote prison on the border with Vietnam after his arrest on charges of treason last September.

Desperate for some kind of validation that the polls are legitimate, Hun Sen’s government is now focused on turnout, offering sweeteners including gifts of cash and food to those who choose to vote and punishing those who do not, analysts say. 

The government will not be able to claim it beat a strong opposition party, said Lee Morgenbesser, a lecturer at Griffith University in Australia who studies elections in authoritarian countries. But with a big turnout, he added, it can say, “We won, and this is how many people turned out to give us the victory.”

A low turnout, in contrast, would indicate to foreign observers that the election is not legitimate. Those observers include the United States, which has started punishing some government loyalists with sanctions, and the European Union, which has threatened to remove preferential tariffs for Cambodia. On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill that would impose further sanctions on a wider group of Cambodian leaders: Hun Sen himself and more than a dozen members of his inner circle.

Cambodian authorities acknowledge that voting is not mandatory. But they have accused those promoting a boycott of using “illegal means” to prevent voters from going to the polls and creating a “disturbance” to the electoral process.

A spokesman for the National Election Committee said this offense is subject to a fine of up to nearly $5,000, as well as criminal penalties of as much as two years in prison. The committee said it has received five complaints related to boycott calls.

“This activity is not just talking” about the boycott, Hang Puthea, an official at the National Election Committee, said in an interview, confirming the complaints and ongoing investigation against those who have called for a boycott. “They are shouting these ideas and pushing people not to vote.”

Leaders of the CNRP say they started calling for a boycott in April when it became clear that they would not be able to participate in the election, despite key leaders’ stepping aside to protect the party’s legality in Cambodia. In February 2017, opposition leader Sam Rainsy resigned from party leadership after a law was proposed barring convicts from political leadership. Sam Rainsy is facing defamation charges that his supporters say are politically motivated. But after Kem Sokha’s arrest and a November court ruling that dissolved the party and barred 118 CNRP leaders — including Chea Chiv — from politics, the party settled on a boycott. 

“The only way to delegitimize [Hun Sen] was to call for a boycott of the meaningless vote,” Sam Rainsy said in an interview from exile in Paris. “We didn’t give up on attempts to talk and re-register for the vote in May, but it was all falling on deaf ears.”

The Clean Finger movement, he said, grew as calls for the boycott became louder and started to resonate abroad and at home.

Still, activists acknowledge that it is easier for those outside the country and those already marked by opposition politics to promote this strategy. Instead of relying solely on social media platforms such as Facebook, which they say is monitored by the government, they are using simple word of mouth. Vanna Hay, a CNRP supporter based in Japan, said he and other Cambodians overseas have been calling their parents and telling them to spread their message in person around rural villages and urban centers.

“Word of mouth is much more powerful when local authorities are trying to shut down everything and force us not to speak out about anything at all,” he said. He has encouraged a whisper campaign to promote the boycott. “Sometimes it is more controversial when people are secretly talking. It sends a louder message than speaking loudly.”

Even in their whispers, proponents of a boycott may have reason to be fearful.

Speaking in Battambang province, where Chea Chiv was charged, a deputy prime minister and deputy head of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, Sar Kheng, urged his supporters to look out for those calling for a boycott on Saturday, the day before polls open. No political campaigning is allowed on that day.

“They will not be quiet on that day,” he said, referring to opposition leaders. “What would they do? Whisper. So please look into that matter. We will not harass them, but we will prevent that activity.” 

Mahtani reported from Singapore.