Cambodia’s ruling party declared victory following the July 29th national election. Headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled the country for more than three decades, the Cambodian People’s Party announced that it will now hold all 125 seats in the country’s national assembly. That the CPP would win handily was a foregone conclusion. The ruling party’s only real competition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, had been dissolved last November, while its leader, Kem Sokha, was imprisoned on flimsily concocted “treason” charges. To top that off, in the months leading up to the vote, the government executed an unprecedented crackdown on independent media and civil society groups, severely restricting the space for free expression and competition.
Yet despite the absurdity of the election conditions and results—which speak to the country’s firm descent into one-party rule—the government has labored to promote the idea that democracy is alive and well in Cambodia. To do so, officials have leaned heavily on two factors in the recent polls: high voter turnout, and the presence of election observers. By relying on these metrics, the Cambodian government has revealed its own need for democratic legitimacy—a need that, in some ways, offers a glimmer of hope. Even so, on both fronts, the purported credentials are nothing more than a mirage.
Cambodia’s National Election Committee reported that voter turnout stood at 82.2 percent on election day, considerably higher than the 68 percent of voters who showed up to the polls in the previous parliamentary elections in 2013. A campaign by the dissolved opposition to encourage people to abstain from voting appeared—on the surface—to have failed to garner significant public support.
But given the NEC’s lack of independence, there are legitimate questions to be asked about the validity of the reported figures. Furthermore, the turnout numbers—even if they are to be believed—reflect the results of intimidation and public fear, rather than voter enthusiasm or consent. Worried that low turnout could undermine the election’s legitimacy, CPP officials in the lead-up to the vote publicly labeled those planning not to cast ballots as “traitors” and threatened to withhold public services from non-voters. Even in the midst of this drastic coercion effort, the number of spoiled ballots—effectively protest votes—increased nearly six-fold from 2013, pointing to considerable public resentment.