For over nine months, we had known who would win last weekend’s general election in Cambodia. In November, the country’s largest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was dissolved after being accused of trying to overthrow the government. Through intimidation and enticement, the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and Prime Minister Hun Sen unsurprisingly emerged victorious at the weekend’s election. A party spokesman has claimed that it won all 125 seats in the National Assembly, despite earlier reports that two of the 19 smaller parties competing on Sunday won seats.
If true, it is the clearest indication of what CNRP politicians, now in exile, have called the “death of democracy” in Cambodia. Indeed, not even the Vietnamese Communist Party, which has presided over a one-party state since the 1970s, holds all seats in its National Assembly: 25 out of 500 representatives are independents. Even China’s National People’s Congress, its national legislature, boasts 479 independents, and almost the same number of representatives from all eight of the non-communist parties that are permitted by the Chinese Communist Party.
In several articles prior to the election, I tried to cover the optimism and goals of the 19 smaller parties that were also competing in the ballot. But the cynical voices were correct: Cambodian voters really didn’t want any of these becoming a new main opposition party. Results from the election are still preliminary and there is slight some variance, but one report published by the National Election Committee (NEC) on Monday contends that the 19 smaller parties combined won just 1.47 million votes. By comparison, the CPP took 4.88 million votes.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
But what strikes the eye is the number of spoiled ballots. The electoral breakdown released by the NEC puts the number of spoiled ballots at 596,775. That would be roughly 9.4 percent of all votes, though the numbers are likely to change over time.
This, analysts say, indicates a major protest vote by the Cambodian people. Most previous elections only saw around 100,000 spoiled ballots. But it’s a bad picture for the 19 smaller parties. Combined, they only won three times as many as votes as the number of spoiled ballots. What’s more, Funcinpec and the League for Democracy Party, which came second and third overall, gained fewer votes than the number of spoiled ballots. Funcinpec, for example, secured just 373,546 votes nationwide compared more than 596,000 invalid ballots, according to the NEC.
Less discernible, though just as important, were voter turnout figures. The CPP has made a great deal about the high percentage, claiming the NEC’s estimation on Sunday of 82.1 percent was an indication Cambodia remains a healthy democracy. It was a higher percentage than the last general election, but not as high as 2017 commune elections, which the CNRP participated in.
However, it is important to remember that the numbers will change as we get to official results being announced in mid-August. In addition, voter turnout percentages include the number of spoiled ballots. Moreover, they do not consider the number of people who didn’t vote. The CNRP called for an electoral boycott beforehand, though the CPP government said people who didn’t vote would considered treasonous and potentially jailed. Analysts and voters say that fear prompted many of the electorate to turn-up at the ballot booths. Still, 1.43 million registered voters didn’t turnout; it’s hard to say if most did so because of the CNRP’s boycott appeal.
In one sense, however, the past weekend’s turnout figures were always likely to be higher than at the 2013 election because there was around 1.3 million fewer registered voters: 8.38 million this year compared to 9.68 million in 2013. Interesting enough, if one calculates the number of votes the CPP received during the election as a percentage of the total number of registered voters, it is about 58.2 percent. This figure, then, takes in consideration those who boycotted the election, spoiled their ballot or voted for another party.
Nonetheless, the CPP has claimed the election results, mainly the high voter turnout percentage, indicates Cambodia remains a peaceful multi-party system. It is hard, however, to parse from the CPP spokesman’s assertion that the ruling party won all of the National Assembly’s 125 seats.
Also worth noting is the CPP domination elsewhere. At the Senate election in February, it won all but four seats in the 62-member upper house. Those four non-CPP seats went to independents and were appointed by the King or the National Assembly (the CPP’s seats were voted by commune councilors, not the public.) Meanwhile, one estimate contends that after the CNRP’s dissolution, the ruling party now controls more than 95 percent of all elected offices at local government, including commune chiefs and councilors.
That’s only the half of it. When the CNRP was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November, attention was paid to the fact that Dith Munty, the Supreme Court’s president, is also a member of the CPP’s elite Permanent Committee. When the CPP’s Central Committee – which is less powerful and more bloated that the Permanent Committee – was expanded by 342 members in January, newcomers included Chiv Keng and Chea Leang, members of the Supreme Court’s jurist council, who were involved in the CNRP’s dissolution case. Additions to the CPP’s Central Committee in January also include Yun Bunleng, president of the country’s Appeals Court, and justice ministry spokesman Kem Santepheap.
What about the military? Well, there were several prominent military figures running for office for the CPP this weekend, and if the CPP won all 125 seats, as it says, we can assume all will become parliamentarians. This includes Pol Saroeun, commander-in-chief of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces (RCAF), and deputy RCAF commanders-in-chief, Meas Sophea and Kun Kim. All three individuals sit on the CPP’s Permanent Committee. Also running for office were Chey Son, secretary-general of Cambodia’s National Authority for Chemical Weapons, and Dy Vichea, deputy chief of the National Police and Hun Sen’s son-in-law.
All of these military and police officials stepped down temporarily from their positions so they could run for office, but it isn’t clear if they will return to their posts if they become parliamentarians. In their place, long-time Hun Sen aide Sao Sokha was named acting commander-in-chief while Pol Saroeun runs for office. Hun Manet, Hun Sen’s eldest son, was made acting chief of the armed forces and acting chief of joint staff, the positions temporarily vacated by Meas Sophea and Kun Kim. He was already RCAF’s deputy commander-in-chief.