Many observers have been surprised by the new wave of political repression which has taken place in Cambodia since the communal elections of June 5.
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) claims a “landslide victory” over the opposition Candlelight Party (CLP). A real landslide was achieved in 2018 when the CPP won 100% of the seats in the national assembly, after dissolving the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) the previous year. In the aftermath of that election Hun Sen sought to relax the political atmosphere by notably releasing CNRP president Kem Sokha from prison.
The dynamic this time is completely different. A mass trial against CNRP officials has resumed. Many of my colleagues at all levels of the CNRP hierarchy have received more heavy sentences and a further eight years has been added to my collection of prison terms. The Khmer-American lawyer Seng Theary has been imprisoned, while witnesses such as Ley Sokhon, who posted videos on Facebook exposing electoral irregularities, have been arrested. A newly elected CLP commune chief, Nhim Sarom, was detained for 24 hours on a futile pretext. The aim was clearly to intimidate other opposition elected officials.
There are administrative reprisals as evidenced by the dismissal of two state agents who are known as being CLP supporters: Eng Srouy from the health department, and Keo Sokmuny from the police department. Hun Sen is warning that these are examples which must not be followed.
A lawsuit for defamation has been filed against CLP vice president Son Chhay who has denounced election irregularities, with a claim for “damages and interest” of 1 million dollars. The aim is clearly to break the party in financial terms.
Manipulation of voter lists
The aggressive attitude adopted by Hun Sen shows that he is not really acting from a position of strength, as would be the case after a real victory. His latest moves betray his sense of weakness and fear.
Hun Sen knows better than anyone the real results of the last commune elections. He knows the nature and size of the irregularities committed and their impact on the results. Correcting for these irregularities means he knows exactly the real level of support for the opposition, which he thought he had killed off with the dissolution of the CNRP in 2017.
A really free and fair poll in 2022 would have led to a higher score for the CLP. This opposition score, which could potentially be publicly released, must be very high to provoke such fear in Hun Sen.
In fact, after each election, the CPP can manufacture the results that it wants by means of its control of the National Election Committee (NEC), which manages voter lists.
A report from the National Democratic Institute (NDI) on voter registration in Cambodia remains as relevant today in this regard as when it was published in 2013.
The report named “Voter Registry Audit” detailed the different tricks used by the NEC to manipulate voter lists in favour of the CPP. This is done by massive disenfranchisement of voters suspected of being non-supportive of the regime, by introducing countless “ghost” voters in the voter registry, and by further inflating votes for the CPP by using the names of those voters, such as migrant workers, who are unable to cast their ballots.
The report showed that only 82.9% of eligible citizens were registered voters, largely at odds with the NEC’s figures which put the number of registered voters at 101.7% of the eligible population. This discrepancy is an indication of the heavy presence of “ghost” or illegitimate voters.
The report also found that 10.8% of eligible citizens who thought they were registered were not on the electoral roll, meaning effective voter disenfranchisement. Further, close to 20% of the names on the list were invalid, which gives another indication of the number of “ghost” voters who can be easily turned into CPP voters. The report finally showed that 9.4% of the people whose names were deleted from the register were incorrectly removed, which again reflected selective disenfranchisement.
In conclusion, the NDI Audit pointed to “a dire need for fundamental electoral reform,” but such a reform has never been initiated since its publication in 2013. NDI was expelled from Cambodia in 2017 for having denounced the systemic election rigging under the Hun Sen regime.
Nevertheless, any revision of the voter registry to ensure more transparency before the forthcoming elections will markedly reduce votes for the CPP and correspondingly increase those for the opposition.
Following the June 5 elections the political landscape has dramatically changed (see “Cambodia’s local elections have ended Hun Sen’s one-party system“).
The opposition remains very largely united despite all efforts to divide it. According to the official (cooked) results, the CLP, formerly the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), scored 22% of the votes, while four new parties claiming to be CNRP spinoffs with Hun Sen’s encouragement, got less than 1% of the votes between them.
Contrary to the CNRP which was able to name observers in each of the 23,000+ polling station in 2017, the CLP could only place its agents in a small number of stations in 2022 due to lack of time and resources as well as increased intimidation and harassment. Without the presence of opposition representatives, the CPP had free rein to play tricks.
For example, in one polling station where 1,000 voters were enrolled and only 600 came to vote – let’s say 300 for the CPP and 300 for the CLP – CPP agents took advantage of the fact that they were alone to use the names of 200 absent voters out of 400 to fraudulently boost their score from 300 to 500. CPP “votes” went from 600 to 800, and the “turnout” from 60% to 80%. The CPP “won” with 62.5% of the votes versus 37.5% for the CLP, when in reality both sides had 50%.
Such practices will be reduced in the future with a reformed NEC and a better organized CLP.
Hun Sen’s strategy
Hun Sen must fear the CLP in 2022 as much as he feared the CNRP until its dissolution in 2017. He must now be worrying about the legislative elections in 2023, just as he feared losing in 2018 until his decision to dissolve the CNRP seven months before the vote.
The 2023 elections will be of the utmost importance for Hun Sen given his age and his plan to have his eldest son Hun Manet take over afterwards. The resurgence of a strong and united opposition threatens to disrupt the succession plan to which he seems firmly wedded.
But Hun Sen cannot dissolve the CLP in the same way as the CNRP. Even leaving aside the international reaction, such a move would make him look like a very mean politician. Such an act would leave history to judge him as a man who could not handle any kind of competition and simply resorted to the administrative dissolution of any party that seemed too strong for him. As he cannot dissolve the CLP, Hun Sen’s strategy is to weaken it through the ferocious repression which is his stock in trade.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.
Sam Rainsy, Cambodia’s finance minister from 1993 to 1994, is the co-founder and acting leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).