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Hun Sen's Cambodia

Cambodian leader tries legitimizing election by getting out the vote

Aggressive tactics make voters afraid to abstain from casting ballots

Cambodian workers are being pressured to give a veneer of democracy to their country's increasingly autocratic rulers. These workers are on their home after their shift at a footwear factory in Kampong Speu.   © Reuters

SA'ANG, Cambodia -- Closing in on a landslide victory, Cambodia's ruling party remains desperate to emerge from Sunday's polls as legitimate.

It has embarked on an aggressive get-out-the-vote campaign, the results of which can be felt here in Sa'ang. This district in Kandal Province, south of Phnom Penh, was once a bastion of support for Cambodia's now-outlawed main opposition party. It now finds itself permeated with fear.

"People get very scared and only talk to people they trust," said one former supporter of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party. "Better not to talk to [people here] because they may be observed and get in trouble. Please don't go to them."

During last year's local elections, the CNRP won 12 of the 16 commune chief positions up for grabs in Sa'ang (in Cambodia, a district's subdivisions are referred to as communes). Across the country the party made unprecedented gains, winning around 44% of the popular vote and dramatically increasing its representation in local governments.

Then, with the CNRP leadership optimistically looking toward the 2018 national election, party president Kem Sokha in September was arrested for treason. The CNRP was forcibly dissolved two months later.

The moves were met with widespread international condemnation. Some observers blasted Cambodia as a one-party dictatorship.

The government forged ahead, pointing to a preponderance of minor parties as evidence that multiparty democracy is alive and well.

Still, due to the CNRP's dissolution, many were questioning the legitimacy of the election. Suddenly, the government had a new problem: People would have to be hounded to vote in what is largely seen as a meaningless election, lest the legitimacy issue start haunting the government itself.

Thus the ruling Cambodian People's Party has resorted to voter intimidation, bribes and threats.

This is a turnaround from past elections when the CPP would be criticized for trying to suppress CNRP voters.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen attends a campaign event in Phnom Penh on July 7.   © Reuters

Noeun Vuthy, a union leader and CNRP supporter in Sa'ang, said the management at his factory threatened those who might abstain from voting.

"The admin manager from the factory said if they don't see the ink, if [the workers] are on short-term contracts, next year in 2019 they won't renew," he said.

Marking voters' fingers with indelible ink used to be done to prevent repeat voting. But Cambodians now fear it will be used to identify and punish boycotters.

For good reason. In May, senior CPP official Ieng Mouly said the ink, or a lack of it, would make it easy to identify "traitors."

Residents of Kandal, Siem Reap, Svay Rieng, and Kampong Chhnang provinces have reported offers of small bribes, officials erroneously telling villagers it is illegal not to vote and threats that public services would be withheld.

In Svay Rieng, southeast of Phnom Penh and on the border with Vietnam, outspoken CNRP member Kong Mas says he has been regularly surveilled and intimidated since printing pro-boycott leaflets disseminated by CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy via Facebook.

Rainsy is currently living in exile.

Kong Mas was told that a legal complaint has been filed against him and feels unsafe in his hometown. The CPP filed a similar complaint against 30 former opposition activists in Battambang Province, in the western part of the country and on the border with Thailand.

Seng Ratha, a former member of the CNRP's provincial working group in Siem Reap, said intimidation is rampant.

"That is 100% truth," he said when asked about reports of people being forced to vote.

At at least one school, teachers, including Seng Ratha's wife, have been ordered by the principal to vote. When Seng Ratha's wife received her voter information card from the National Election Committee, the document had a CPP logo on it.

The principal then demanded that she let him photocopy the card, which included her voter identification number and polling station.

"I explained to her that last election millions of people did not vote and nothing happened, nobody was arrested," Seng Ratha said.

Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, said these tactics show the government is worried about how low voter turnout could affect legitimacy.

"The government is fooling itself if it thinks that the international community is going to be taken in by these increasingly desperate tactics," he said.

Robertson said he expects the strategy to "backfire." As more reports of abuse are exposed, he said, they will add further layers of illegitimacy to the electoral process.

Seng Ratha said there will be "many tricks" on election day, both to inaccurately bolster voter turnout and to avoid too overwhelming of a victory.

"They are not worried about losing," he said. "They are worried about too much winning."

With no independent local election monitors and a National Election Committee dominated by the ruling party, it will be difficult to authenticate results.

While the Ministry of Interior plans to investigate and fine those who call for boycotts, spokesman Khieu Sopheak has said there will be no inquiry into reports of intimidation.

"They're only accusations," he said. "We don't believe them."

Interior Minister Sar Kheng this week acknowledged that individual Cambodians cannot be punished for abstaining but said those who call for boycotts will be fined between 5 million riel and 20 million riel ($1,240 and $4,965) for violating a vague election law that bans causing "confusion."

Sopheak said he isn't worried about voter apathy; he expects CPP supporters alone to push turnout beyond the 50% mark, on par with some western democracies, he said.

News reports do not focus on CPP supporters, but there are millions of them, like Phnom Penh resident Chuon Momthol, who backs the party primarily because of its labor policies and the country's economic progress.

Chuon Momthol, a pro-government union leader, said the fact that Cambodia has 20 parties satisfies the Constitutional requirement for democratic pluralism, CNRP or not.

"It's very special," he said. "Two is OK, three is OK, but we have 20!"

As for the intimidation measures, Paul Chambers, who lectures on international relations at Naresuan University in Thailand, said they have worked to downgrade Cambodia from a "defective democracy" to full blown authoritarianism.

Unconvinced by the existence of 19 opposition parties, which won a combined 5% or so of the vote in last year's commune elections, Chambers, who has a Ph.D. in political science from Northern Illinois University in the U.S., said the CPP only wants to participate in an election that's already a "sure thing."

"In other words," he said, "the CPP now prefers blatant dictatorship to democracy."

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