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Hun Sen's Cambodia

Hun Sen's party rebuffs election boycott calls with high turnout

Results' legitimacy questioned due to intimidation and other strong-arm tactics

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen will have more power than he ever has before in his 33-year rule. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

PHNOM PENH -- Cambodia's ruling party won big in Sunday's general election, which despite calls for a boycott from officials of a forcibly dissolved opposition party had a higher voter turnout than the previous national election, back in 2013.

After polls closed at 3 p.m., the National Election Committee announced that 82.17% of the nation's 8.3 million registered voters had turned up to vote. The NEC revised the rate from an initially announced 80.49%.

Five years ago, 70% of eligible voters showed up, barely giving Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party a victory against a suddenly formidable Cambodia National Rescue Party.

But this past November, the CNRP was disbanded by a controversial Supreme Court order that left no viable contender to challenge the CPP.

The ruling party secured more than 120 seats in the 125-member National Assembly, the most the ruling party has won in any election, according to a senior CPP official who has seen party-tallied election results. The National Election Committee has yet to announce official results.

The CPP also dominates the senate, the upper house of Cambodia's parliament, and Sunday's electoral victory allows it to cement one-party ruling for the next five years.

"A victory without a contest is a hollow one," former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy said in a statement from France. "This senseless victory does nothing to resolve the political crisis that Cambodia faces as a result of the regime's totalitarian drift over the last 12 months."

The self-exiled politician, together with other former CNRP members, had been calling on supporters to abstain from voting. The camp's "clean finger" campaign, a reference to the practice of staining the tip of the index finger with ink after voting, was aimed at undermining the legitimacy of the CPP's assured victory, as well as the legitimacy of Hun Sen himself, who will be extending his 33-year reign by another five years.

Hun Sen had slammed anyone choosing to abstain from voting as "destroying democracy." All the while, his party had been handing out cash and other incentives to push voters to the polls. The government ordered employers to give a three-day paid holiday, through Monday, so workers could return to their hometowns and vote.

A worker at a polling station in Phnom Penh shows a ballot on which the voter checked all the boxes, a sign of a silent protest against one-party rule. (Photo by Akira Kodaka)

The CPP also used threats to get people to vote. Its tactics have led some observers to question the electoral process.

"Regardless of the voter turnout, it's difficult to characterize [the results of an] election that is widely considered not to be free or fair as legitimate," said Courtney Weatherby, a research analyst at The Stimson Center. "There are many reports on the ground of voter intimidation, and that was surely a significant factor in bringing the people to the booths."

Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch, pointed to "significant systematic intimidation" by the CPP, which issued threats to people considering not voting through local councils and workplaces. Some people, for example, were pressured by their employers to come back from the three-day holiday with their fingers stained.

The intimidation could have led to an increased number of blank or void ballots, Robertson said. "People who were afraid that if they did not have the ink on their fingers, they would face retaliation that could hurt their families and their lives, had to make a pragmatic decision."

NEC Chairman Sik Bun Hok said the results show that democracy is strengthening in Cambodia. "The people really understand their duties and obligations and know how to exercise their rights to select a leader," he told reporters.

The NEC is largely made up of CPP members.

People line up to vote at a polling station in Phnom Penh on July 29. (Photo by Akira Kodaka) 

Some critics are pointing out that the number of registered voters dropped by more than 1 million from 2013 despite the country's population having grown. The actual number of voters increased by 100,000 from half a decade ago. "They could be playing with numbers," Robertson of Human Rights Watch said.

Cambodia now moves on from the electoral process with a ruling party that has virtually unchallenged power.

Vannarith Chheang, an associate fellow at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute, said the CPP's reform and anti-corruption efforts could slow down. "The ruling party may be complacent with no opposition," he said. "If we can see new faces in the new cabinet that will be formed, then we can say that the next five years will be a better future."

The international community has been watching Cambodia's democratic process. China, the country's largest investor, is likely to quickly endorse the election results. Western countries that pulled funding for the election may react with sanctions which could threaten the Cambodian economy's 7% per year average growth rate.

The European Union, an important importer of Cambodian garments and rice, has threatened to scrap preferential tariff arrangements for Cambodian goods.

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