Nationwide elections for local councils were marred by fraud and irregularities, Cambodia’s opposition Candlelight Party said Monday while ruling out a formal protest against what the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) claimed was a sweeping victory.
Though official returns from Sunday’s polls are scheduled for release on June 26, a statement issued by the National Election Committee (NEC) on Monday said the CPP received 5.3 million popular votes to win 9,338 out of the 11,622 commune council seats that were contested.
The Candlelight Party received 1.6 million votes, winning 2,180 seats, with other parties taking up the remainder of votes and seats.
Candlelight Party candidates and election observers said they were the victims of harassment and intimidation before and during the voting, and that the NEC, a purportedly independent agency that supervises elections in Cambodia, failed to take action to stop it.
Nearly all polling stations across the country were closed and locked after 3 p.m., and officials prevented observers from monitoring the counting of votes at polling stations, they said.
In some cases, election officials did not allow the counting of ballots at polling stations after they closed, but instead gave local authorities and representatives from CPP observer organizations access to them, they said.
The Candlelight Party said the abuses amounted to vote-rigging. The party does not believe the results reflect the will of the people, but will not protest the returns, said Son Chhay, Candlelight’s vice president.
“We have no plans to demonstrate, but we want to make our concern or the concern of the electorate heard about the irregularities that affect their will, and we ask for improvement,” he said at a press conference.
NEC spokesman Hang Puthea disputed the Candlelight Party’s contention, saying the election process went smoothly and the results can be trusted.
“Acceptance or disapproval does not depend on the political language of any political party,” he said. “On the contrary, many parties and national and international observers have expressed their appreciation for the management of the election process.”
But Hang Puthea added that the NEC would accept all recommendations that yield better elections in the future.
RFA could not reach CPP spokesman Sok Eysan for comment on Monday. On Sunday night he had called the election the “best one” ever without elaborating.
“Pattern of threats’
Several observers though had noted heavy-handed tactics by the ruling CPP in the run-up to Sunday’s vote.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed its concern over a pattern of intimidation and the arrest and imprisonment of some opposition party candidates. At least six Candlelight Party candidates and activists had been arrested and jailed before and during election campaigning.
“We are disturbed by the pattern of threats, intimidation and obstruction targeting opposition candidates ahead of communal elections in Cambodia on 5 June,” office spokesperson Liz Throssell said in a statement Friday.
The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) also registered its concerns with the election campaign, especially the persecution of Candlelight Party candidates. APHR member Maria Chin Abdullah, a Malaysian lawmaker, said it was impossible to hold free and fair elections in an environment where opposition politicians are persecuted.
Political commentator Meas Nee, who visited a number of polling stations, told RFA that while he didn’t see any violence at polling stations there were other signs of voter intimidation.
“But village and commune chiefs were present at the polling stations and were there to record the names of people who came to vote,” he said. “This could be interpreted in a way that conveys if you don’t vote for me, you will have problems.”
Voters, many of whom are struggling with inflation after two years of economic hardship as a result of the coronavirus pandemic, expressed disappointment with the results.
“My vote is meaningful for my life, but I’m so frustrated because the result showed the opposite of my expectation,” Kim Channara, 49, who works at the Chea Sinath Garment Factory Worker in Phnom Penh, told RFA on Monday.
Khuth Sokha, 42, president of the garment factory, said she was disappointed by the outcome and noted that just before the elections, CPP authorities distributed 20,000 riels (U.S. $5) and a krama, or scarf, to each citizen.
“The government has in power for so long and has not made any substantial progress,” Khuth Sokha said. “Land disputes are widespread, so I want to see a change of new leaders who might make the situation better.”
‘Time to fulfill promises’
Kata On, spokesman for the government’s Human Rights Commission, said the election results must be respected.
“The Cambodian People’s Party works for the interest of the people. We, the CPP, are of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
For several voters, working for the people means controlling inflation in country.
Chheang Sinath, a tourist tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh, told RFA that high gasoline and food prices in Cambodia have hurt his ability to earn a living and pay his bills.
“We know that the result is that the Cambodian People’s Party won the commune elections, so please consider solving the high price of gasoline for us,” he said. “Nowadays, living is so difficult.”
RFA could not reach Ministry of Commerce spokesmen Seang Thai and Long Kemvichet for comment.
Vorn Pov, president of the Independent Association of Informal Economy, a union that represents tuk-tuk drivers and other service economy workers, said it members are becoming poorer amid the price increases. Once again, it’s the CPP’s responsibility to solve the problem, he said.
“We see that the government, especially the ruling party, has won a landslide victory in thousands of communes, so it should be time to fulfill its promises made during the election campaign,” Vorn Pov said.
Translated by Sum Sok Ry for RFA Khmer. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.