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Poll 'far from fair'

Gabriel Domínguez
July 30, 2013

Despite making impressive gains, Cambodia's main opposition party rejected the results of a general election won by the long-time ruling party. Election monitor Manfred Hornung examines the impact of the recent poll.

Ballot boxes are emptied in a polling station in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 28 July 2013. (Photo: EPA)
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Provisional results from the vote on July 28th showed the opposition capturing 55 of the 123 seats in the National Assembly and Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party winning 68 seats - a majority of 55 percent.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who returned from exile last week to campaign for his Cambodia National Rescue Party but wasn't allowed to run, called for an independent investigation into allegations that as many as a million people may have been deprived of their right to vote. Manfred Hornung, who enlisted with the Cambodian non-governmental organization NICFEC to monitor the elections, said in a DW interview the poll was marred by a series of institutional and political irregularities.

DW: What were the key issues in this election?

Manfred Hornung: The key issues that marked this election and drove thousands of people to participate in the pre-election street campaigns revolved around the pervasive corruption in the country, widespread land-grabbing, the lack of formal employment aggravated by low wages, and the denial of basic political freedoms.  In the pre-election phase, the youth also expressed growing frustration in social media at the partisan election campaign coverage by state-owned television and radio stations, which clearly favored the positions of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).

Manfred Hornung, country director of the Cambodia Office of tjr Heinrich Böll Foundation in Phnom Penh (Photo: Heinrich Böll Foundation)
Hornung says the election committee has been the extended electoral arm of the ruling partyImage: Heinrich Böll Stiftung

The preliminary election results show a considerable increase in popular support for the opposition movement. The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) is said to have secured 55 seats of a total of 123 seats in the National Assembly. During the last legislature, the opposition had a combined 29 seats in the House. 

Were the elections free and fair?

There are multiple indications that the election process has been far from free and fair. It was in fact marred by a series of institutional and political irregularities. At the center of criticism stands the National Election Committee (NEC). Although it was established by law to be the non-partisan custodian of free and fair elections in Cambodia, the NEC has long been the extended electoral arm of the ruling CPP.

In March, the Washington-based National Democratic Institute in cooperation with two Cambodian NGOs conducted an audit of the NEC's voter list. The results were staggering. The authors found that roughly 20 percent of the total voter registration was flawed, opening the door for widespread abuse of the system. Given the CPP's total control over the NEC, no one doubted which party would eventually benefit from these irregularities. On 24 July, the Phnom Penh Post issued an article that indicated an even larger potential for vote rigging.

The paper claimed that in Phnom Penh alone, voter registration rates were in excess of 145,000 names compared to the actual number of eligible voters residing in the city. The "Phnom Penh Post" saw this particular pattern of over-registration repeated in almost all decisive provinces.  The tight control by the ruling CPP over the state-owned media as well as the use of public servants and state assets for the CPP's election campaign, played another salient role in raising doubts about the fairness of the election process.

What's the opposition's current position on the outcome of the election?

The CNRP has rejected the results of the poll and called for an independent investigation of the election process. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy was quoted in the press as saying that due to "too many irregularities," the opposition party could not accept the election results. Rainsy suggested establishing an independent committee, comprising members of the affected political parties CPP and CNRP as well as UN institutions and NGOs with a stake in election monitoring.

Depending on the findings of this independent committee, the CNRP would conceive its response to the alleged irregularities, reaching as far as calling for a complete revote if necessary, according to the opposition leader.  The CNRP also made clear that they would not accept an investigation into the alleged election irregularities by the National Election Committee or the Constitutional Council, calling it an "absurd idea" to entrust "institutions which are entirely in the hands of the ruling party" with such an important task.     

Did the opposition ever have a chance at winning, considering the ruling party's firm grip on power?

Prior to the elections, very few observers believed that the CNRP would be able to cause a major upset at the polls. Despite the institutional and political obstacles jeopardizing free and fair elections, the fact that the opposition managed to increase votes by a considerable margin highlights the frustration and the will of the people to bring about genuine political change.

In Kandal province, where I observed the elections, a large number of citizens stayed on around the polling stations to monitor whether outsiders with falsified documentation came to vote in their constituency.  Crowds of villagers also remained on site until the evening to peek through the windows of the polling stations following the counting of the ballots, often taking notes.

In contrast to the 2008 elections which I followed in Takeo province, the people seemed to have lost their fear in standing up against what they felt would amount to vote rigging and attempts to virtually steal the elections from them. In this regard, I feel that the opposition owes a great deal to the perseverance, commitment and courage of the voters on that day.

What influence can the opposition now exert to bring about political change?

Given that the preliminary election results were to be confirmed and accepted, a number of options would open up for the CNRP to turn the national assembly into something more than a mere rubber stamp institution. With 55 MPs, the opposition could wield considerable political influence on the floor and in the parliamentary committees to advance its agenda.

More importantly, the ruling CPP lost its comfortable two-thirds majority attained in 2008, which came with a number of important prerogatives to effectively neutralize any opposition in the assembly. Among others, this majority gave the CPP the power to change the constitution at will. Moreover, after the 2008 elections, the CPP could unilaterally call for the national assembly to form, a motion which requires a statutory quorum of at least two-thirds of the members of parliament.  Now the tables have turned completely.

Cambodian opposition leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) Sam Rainsy (C) raises his arm with Kem Sokha (centre L) Vice president of the CNRP as they greet supporters along a street in Phnom Penh on July 19, 2013 (Photo: AFP)
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy rejected the poll resultsImage: Tang Chhin Sothy/AFP/Getty Images

The public will very closely follow whether the opposition is prepared to introduce critical social issues into the Assembly debates. This would include discussions about the processes leading to the grant of large-scale economic concessions, including the collection and use of royalties and taxes generated by these concessions in the public interest.

In fulfilling this role as a people-centered and issue-based opposition, the CNRP could drive the political agenda, and probably entice the more reform-minded officials within the ruling party to also consider a renewed strategy towards more inclusive and participatory social and economic policies in the interest of the people.

What challenges lie ahead for Cambodia?

In the more immediate future, it remains to be seen as to how the two main parties deal with this rather unexpected election result. Since the vote, the population has been very anxious, fearing the eruption of widespread unrest. Both the opposition and the ruling party therefore need to very carefully negotiate their respective frustrations, and communicate with a sense of responsibility and calm with their members and supporters.

In the long run, it depends on how the opposition and the ruling party will define their future role in society and, in particular, in parliament. Given the current results, the CNRP would have a sufficient number of MPs to try and stamp their mark in the plenum and the parliamentary committees.

Manfred Hornung heads the Heinrich Böll Foundation's office in Cambodia.

The interview was conducted by Gabriel Domínguez.