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Asia

Protests are 'a last resort' in election wrangle

Nearly three weeks after the July 28 poll, which both the ruling party and the opposition claim they won, the main opposition party's leader insists upon an independent enquiry into alleged irregularities.

Sam Rainsy, who was greeted at Phnom Penh's airport by hundreds of supporters, repeated that message to the assembled media scrum.

"The whole world knows that CNRP won the election," he said. "And the whole world will help CNRP to expose the truth - the truth is that CNRP won the election."

Rainsy, leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), returned to the country shortly after a proposed independent enquiry into alleged irregularities at the polls appears to have stalled before it even took off. Talks between the opposition and the ruling Cambodian People's Party of Prime Minister Hun Sen on the composition of the committee look to have broken down - irretrievably, say some observers.

Nevertheless, Rainsy said he remained confident that Hun Sen would allow the investigation to proceed, "because nobody would recognise any government stemming from fake elections."

And should the opposition not get its own way, demonstrations remained "a last resort."

Tensions raised

Rainsy's words come at a tense time: both parties insist they won the ballot; the independent committee looks to be dead in the water; and the government has deployed an unknown number of troops, military police and armoured vehicles to Phnom Penh.

On Friday, August 16, local media reported that more tanks and armoured personnel carriers had been transported to the capital.

The government says the military hardware is in place to counter any protests that turn violent, although it is unclear how tanks, for instance, could be much use. Many believe Hun Sen is acting to intimidate Rainsy's supporters - to keep them off the streets and weaken his opponent's bargaining power.

Sam Rainsy returns to Phnom Penh, surrounded by fans (Photo: DW/Robert Carmichael, Phnom Penh 16.08.2013)

Sam Rainsy insists upon an enquiry into alleged irregularities in the July 28 election

Others suggest there could be more to it than that. Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said the deployment might also be aimed at warning off potential threats within the ruling party.

"Judging from various statements by different leaders of the ruling party, [they] have not been so consistent with one another," he said. "So apparently this reflects a lack of cohesion within the leadership of the ruling party."

In short, deploying the military could be like using "one stone to kill two birds."

Regardless of the motives, the potential for violence remains a concern, said Lao Mong Hay. However, he believes it is unlikely to come from opposition supporters, who behaved peacefully during the campaigning period. Historically it is the security forces that have inflicted violence on the people rather than the other way around, and he believes that is where the risk lies.

"So if [the campaigning period] spirit were to prevail, I think the likelihood of violence is much less," he said. "And perhaps our politicians would prefer to have a negotiated settlement of their conflicts [instead of violence]."

Honest broker?

Earlier this week the National Election Committee - which oversees elections - released its preliminary results showing that the CPP had won around 3.2 million votes to the CNRP's 2.95 million.

If those results are confirmed in the coming weeks, that will likely translate into 68 seats for the CPP and 55 seats for the CNRP. By any reckoning, it is a humiliation for the ruling party, which held 90 seats in the last parliament, and a significant boost to the opposition, which held 29 seats.

But despite its unprecedented showing, the opposition promptly rejected the results and claimed its own figures showed it had won 63 seats and with that, the election outright, though it has yet to provide proof of that claim. It claims the NEC conspired with the ruling party to steal the election and cannot be trusted to investigate itself. For this reason, the CNRP says, the party is insisting on an independent probe.

The NEC certainly has questions to answer. The electoral roll, which is its responsibility, was stuffed with an estimated one million ghost voters, while the names of another one million genuine voters were missing. Together that amounted to more than 20 percent of the voter list.

Initially - and remarkably, given its presumed control of the NEC - the CPP agreed to the idea of an independent investigation. However, that apparent initial enthusiasm has gone, and Lao Mong Hay reckons an independent investigation "is no longer a real possibility."

Military policemen stand in front of a poster of Cambodia's long-ruling Prime Minister Hun Sen in central Phnom Penh July 30, 2013. (Photo: REUTERS/Samrang Pring)

Security has been increased in the capital city

Meanwhile, the relationship between the NEC and the CNRP continues to worsen. On Thursday, August 15, the NEC began examining election-related complaints, but the opposition walked out shortly after it started. The NEC, it said, was not following procedures when checking potential errors, rendering the complaints process meaningless.

Economic toll

The tensions around the unresolved political situation are also taking an economic cost. The garment-manufacturing sector is Cambodia's largest formal employer with around 300,000 workers, and is also its biggest foreign exchange earner.

Most garment factories are based in or around Phnom Penh, and most of their workers come from rural areas. But many went back to their villages before the election.

Fear that violence could erupt means thousands have not yet returned to work, according to Dave Welsh, country director of the American Center for International Labor Solidarity (ACILS), a non-profit affiliated with the US-based labour movement.

"We are talking anywhere between 20,000 to 40,000 people," says Welsh, adding that because the industry was already in need of another 150,000 workers to get to full capacity, "it's definitely not in a position to handle this."

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