Cambodians casting votes in a ′sham′ election | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 28.07.2018
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Cambodians casting votes in a 'sham' election

Cambodia has held a general election in which the ruling party faces almost no challenge. PM Hun Sen lambasted the opposition call to boycott the polls, saying those who heed it are "destroyers of democracy."

Kim Chenda doesn't want to go to vote. But the garment worker fears the consequences of not making her way to the polling station. "There are rumors that if you don't go to vote, you will lose your job," she explains.   

Chenda is one of over 8.3 million Cambodians who are eligible to vote in Cambodia's general election this Sunday. It will be the country's most controversial election in decades, with the former opposition party calling for a boycott.

Read more: Khmer Rouge genocide in the minds of Cambodian youth

The controversy has been driven by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP). After the dissolution of the popular Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) by the government-controlled Supreme Court and the arrest of opposition leader Kem Sokha on charges of treason, the CPP no longer has a main competitor. Victory is almost certain for Hun Sen.

With 20 parties competing, over 22,000 polling stations and 220 observers from 52 countries, Hun Sen is trying to make the election appear as credible as possible. And unlike previous elections, the prime minister has been strongly urging people to go out and vote, knowing that a low turnout could cast serious doubts on the election's legitimacy. Some people, like Chenda, have even complained about threats and intimidation from authorities if they openly consider staying home on polling day.

Human rights observers have already expressed their doubts. Rhona Smith, an election expert with the UN Human Rights Council, said in an earlier statement that "no election can be genuine if the main opposition party is barred from taking part," a direct reference to the ban on the CNRP.

Led by Sokha and Sam Rainsy, the CNRP won over 44 percent of the votes in the previous general election. It was dissolved last year on the grounds of attempting to stage a "color revolution" against the government. 

This attracted widespread criticism, with rights defenders questioning the credibility of the upcoming election.

'Illegitimate' election

Kingsley Abbott, a legal advisor for the International Commission of Jurists, has branded the election "illegitimate."

"The deliberate and systematic violations of human rights and assaults on the rule of law in the lead-up to the election clearly render it illegitimate," he said.

Read more: Cambodia: New owner of leading newspaper fires editor, staff resign

The past few years have witnessed serious crackdowns on political freedoms in Cambodia.  Besides the CNRP's dissolution, other government opponents were threatened, arrested or forced into exile. New laws were passed to silence dissent, such as a law against "fake news" and a law that made it an offence to insult the monarchy.

The country's media also came in the line of fire, with the forced closure of The Cambodia Daily and many independent radio stations. Repression is nothing new in Cambodia — a country that has been run by strongman Hun Sen since 1985. 

These acts, however, have gone far beyond the usual repression in the run-up to elections, Abbott said. "The underlying legal and constitutional framework of the country has been altered to weaponize the law against perceived opponents of the ruling party."

Wahlen in Kambodscha Hun Sen 28.07.2013 (Reuters)

Hun Sen has governed Cambodia for over three decades, after he took power as prime minister in 1985

Opposition boycott

Yet, some people, like Yen Virak, still believe in Cambodia's democracy. His Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP) is one of the many small parties that will compete in the election. Virak hopes that the GDP will become Cambodia's new main opposition party. "We know that this election won't be absolutely free and fair, but I still think the people desire for an alternative to the ruling party," he said.

Meanwhile, the country's former main opposition party, the CNRP, has urged Cambodians to boycott the election entirely. Its former head Sam Rainsy said on Twitter that it's a "fake election."

In an interview with DW, Rainsy said the upcoming vote "is not an election as prescribed in Cambodia's constitution." He also stressed that opposition politicians who remain in the country are "harassed and persecuted, while most of them have been forced into exile."

Hun Sen dismisses this criticism. At a recent meeting with garment workers, the prime minister reportedly even said that if his party doesn't win the elections, he's ready to step down.

An election defeat for him, however, seems highly unlikely.

Kambodscha Politiker Kem Sokha (picture-alliance/AP Photo/Heng Sinith)

CNRP leader Kem Sokha was jailed last September on treason charges which his supporters say were politically motivated

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