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‘My vote is useless’: Some refuse to cast ballots in Cambodian election

Cambodian National Election Committee officials and observers wait for voters at a polling station on Sunday in Phnom Penh.
Cambodian National Election Committee officials and observers wait for voters at a polling station on Sunday in Phnom Penh. (EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
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PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The 57-year-old farmer in a rural northern Cambodian province had voted in every election since a U.N.-led effort to bring democracy to this country a quarter-century ago.

This time, he stayed home. 

“In this election, my vote is useless,” Khorngson Phumpihean said in a phone interview from Ratanakiri province, which borders Laos and Vietnam. “Everything in this election is unjust.”

Cambodians on Sunday were offered the opportunity to vote for their next government, but many have chosen not to and others have spoiled their ballots to protest what has been widely decried as a sham election engineered to extend the run of Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose tenure of more than three decades makes him one of the world’s longest-serving rulers. A spokesman for his party told The Washington Post on Sunday night that preliminary results show the party winning about 100 out of 125 available seats — a landslide. 

“There’s only one strong competitor, who has already won,” said Dim Ratha, a 30-year-old motorcycle-taxi driver, speaking hours after polls opened in an area on the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital, Phnom Penh, where many garment workers live. “The party we want is not on the list,” he said.

Standing next to him, a friend tentatively held up his clean index finger, unstained by the India ink used to mark those who have voted.

Others forfeited their votes by marking their ballots with a giant X, crossing out all of the 20 parties listed, casting blank ballots or writing that the election is unjust or a sham at the top of the paper, according to photos posted on Facebook.

They were among those acting in defiance of Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), whose blue party banners and billboards line Phnom Penh’s streets in one of many indications of its dominance in this Southeast Asian country. 

Cambodia’s history has been shaped by war, genocide and, later on, the unprecedented effort by the United Nations and Western donors to bring multiparty democracy to the country. 

But elections have done little to effect changes, analysts say, and Sunday’s vote will only serve to reinforce that reality. In November, a court dissolved the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) — which almost unseated Hun Sen’s CPP in 2013 — and locked its leader, Kem Sokha, in a remote jail on treason charges. The government has muzzled independent press and, on the eve of the general election, blocked 17 websites, including those of the U.S.-funded Voice of America and Radio Free Asia. Meanwhile, thousands of Cambodians have been invited to WhatsApp groups spreading misinformation and regime-friendly propaganda. 

The National Election Commission, which is not independent, has touted the presence of the 19 other parties contesting the election, but none are significant enough to disrupt what is likely to be the consolidation of power around the CPP. International monitors have been deployed to observe the election, but none are from credible organizations. The United States, European Union and Japan refused to send observers to the vote.

A coalition of 23 internationally recognized election observers, including the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), said the monitors in Cambodia “show neither the autonomy nor the skills to conduct an independent, reliable assessment of the elections.”

“Elections have a history of cementing authoritarian rule in Cambodia,” said Lee Morgenbesser, a lecturer at Griffith University in Australia who studies Cambodia politics. Sunday’s elections, he added, “are far less about the hope of democracy and far more about the reality of authoritarian rule.”  

Hours after polls closed on Sunday, the election commission said it recorded a 80.5 percent turnout, which it later revised to 82.7 percent. The commission declined to say how many ballots were valid or how many ballots had been deliberately spoiled. Officials heralded the turnout, which, if accurate, would be higher than that in the competitive 2013 elections, as a sign that the election — and, therefore, the government that will be formed as a result — was legitimate. 

“You can tell from the face of the voters. They are happy. So how can you say that they were forced?” Sik Bunhok, chair of the commission, said in a news conference. There was “no intimidation at all.” 

At least half a dozen voters interviewed by The Washington Post in the capital, which in previous elections was a stronghold of the now-dissolved CNRP, said they were not voting and declined to be named, citing intimidation, harassment and fines imposed on those who have promoted a boycott. 

Others said they were voting only because they feared a government backlash. Despite the commission’s tally of an 80 percent turnout in Phnom Penh, things were quiet at multiple polling stations hours before voting closed. “It is just more red cards for the [election commission] and CPP,” Mu Sochua, a prominent member of the CNRP, said in an interview from Seoul. “They know they cannot bring in the crowd.”

The CNRP in recent months called for a boycott of the vote, and Hun Sen pushed back, branding those heeding its calls as “traitors.” The election commission fined several who promoted the boycott in the weeks leading up to the vote. 

“The manipulation of voting in the polling stations due to the complete control of the ruling CPP over voting operations from A to Z caused serious distortions,” exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy said in a statement. “Every credible national and international election-observing organization has refused to observe an election process that was falsified from the outset.” 

Among the 200 international observers who gave Cambodia’s election a clean bill of health were representatives from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Communist Party of China, a steadfast defender of Hun Sen’s government. The Communist Party noted the presence of “women with babies and aged voters” who arrived at the polling stations “very early in the morning” as a sign of enthusiastic turnout. 

“The delegation considers the sixth legislative election in Cambodia peaceful, fair and transparent,” the Communist Party of China said. Other delegations from Maldives, Nepal and Russia also were invited to sign off on the elections at a lengthy news conference in Phnom Penh. 

Cambodians who voted for the ruling party said they did so because they believed Hun Sen and the CPP could continue to bring development to the country. Billions in investments from China have flooded into Cambodia in recent years, creating satellite cities and high-rise buildings where nothing stood before, and new transportation links such as roads and bridges. 

“I am not swayed by any of these boycott campaigns,” said Rath Sineth, a 51-year-old voter in Phnom Penh. “I believe it is my duty to elect the leader who can make my life better.”

Reth Bandith, a 26-year-old government official in the capital, said salaries of public servants have increased under Hun Sen, explaining his support for the ruling party. 

Even in former opposition strongholds, several chose to go to the polls, fearing reprisal or pressure from the government. One family of shopkeepers and tailors in the Veng Sreng area, the site of violent anti-government protests after the 2013 elections, said they felt compelled to vote, or risk their livelihoods. 

“We know what is going on, but we can’t express it publicly,” said a 37-year old shopkeeper. “We have to keep our opinions to our closest circles to make sure we have peace.” 

A guide to Cambodia’s elections

Cambodia cracks down on boycott campaign

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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