Asia-Pacific

Cambodian election: Why many fear vote will be a sham

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There are 20 candidates but only one predicted winner.

Cambodians go to the polls on Sunday 29 July, but despite having 20 political parties to choose from, many locals fear nothing will change.

A brief history of Hun Sen

After 33 years in power, Cambodian Prime Minister and leader of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) Hun Sen is the world's longest-serving prime minister.

A former officer of the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime that killed, starved or worked to death two million Cambodians in the 1970s, he has used a combination of populist politics, strong-arm tactics and even a military coup in 1997 to retain his position.

Hun Sen
Hun Sen with party supporters prior to a campaign rally in Phnom Penh.
The Asahi Shimbun / Getty Images

When Cambodians last went to the polls in 2013, the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) narrowly lost the election. But when Cambodians return to the polls on Sunday, the CNRP isn’t an option: the party has been dissolved by the courts and its leader Kem Sohka imprisoned for treason.

“Hun Sen's plan has always been to use the electoral process to give himself a veil of legitimacy. But he has no intention of ever stepping down,” Chhay, a publisher in Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, told SBS News.

Chhay, like others SBS News interviewed in Cambodia for this article, spoke on condition their surname would be withheld, citing fears of government reprisal.

Why is this election so unusual?

Hun Sen hasn't stopped at dissolving the opposition. In the past year, he has silenced the press by revoking radio station licenses, slugging newspapers with unwarranted multi-million-dollar tax bills and arresting journalists.

The CPP has also allegedly engaged in rampant vote buying. According to eyewitnesses, cash envelopes have been distributed to tens of thousands of garment factory workers and poor rural voters. And now, calls by the scattered remnants of the opposition to boycott the election are being met with threats by security officials that those opposition members will be rounded-up – even though voting is not compulsory in Cambodia.

CPP volunteer
A volunteer of the ruling CPP gives leaflets to customers at a coffee shop in Phnom Penh.
AFP / Getty Images

“No one wants to go to vote, because the party they like is missing,” said Kim, a tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh.

“People believe if they vote or if they don't vote the result will the same. The government will win.” His colleague Bounhoeun added: “80 per cent of the Cambodian people want change and would vote for Kem Sohka if they could. But we cannot because they put him in prison.”

Who are the candidates?

In addition to Hun Sen, there are 19 other candidates representing small parties on the ballet. But according to LICADHO, a Cambodian human rights organisation, all but one party is aligned with the CPP: the Grassroots Democratic Party’s (GDP).

Two years ago, the GDP's co-founder Kem Ley was gunned down at a petrol station in Phnom Penh. The murder took place after he called for an investigation into Hun Sen's finances on the back of a Global Witness report that valued the prime minister's family fortune at more than $270 million.

Supporters of the Grassroots Democratic Party
Supporters of the GDP seek blessings from monks during a campaign rally.
LightRocket / Getty Images

The GDP's current leader, Saing Koma, rejects calls to boycott the election and what Southeast Asians often refer to as “confrontational politics”. This week Saing Koma is being particularly careful about what he says. When SBS News contacted him via his mobile phone, the man who answered insisted we had the wrong number even though the number had been verified.

LICADHO director Naly Pilorge helped explain why such action may be necessary. “For security reasons, I do not talk on the phone, you can find me on WhatsApp, Signal or Wire,” she said, adding: “I cannot comment on any election-related matter.”

Why should Australians be watching?

Forty-five countries, including Australia, signed a statement urging the Cambodian government to reinstate the opposition, ensure the election is free and fair, and for the release all political prisoners.

“We are particularly concerned about the conditions under which opposition leader Kem Sokha is being held,” read the statement delivered to UN Human Rights Council in Geneva in March.

“He is reportedly in isolation, without adequate access to health care, subjected to intrusive observation, and other conditions, such as constant light.”

Australian-Cambodians protest
Australian-Cambodians protest the presence of Hun Sen at the ASEAN summit in Sydney in March.
AFP / Getty Images

But according to Meng Heang Tak, a prominent member of the Australian-Cambodian community and broadcaster at SBS Radio, Australia has not gone far enough.

“We are very frustrated about what is happening in Cambodian and ask the Australian Government not to recognise the election or its victor as the legitimate government of Cambodia," he said. 

Dr Lee Morgenbesser of Griffith University's School of Government and International Relations told SBS News Australians should care about what is happening in Cambodia because "Australia has invested significant time and energy and financial resources”. 

“We played a major part in the UN peacekeeping mission in Cambodian in the early 1990s and have continued to invest aid money to build up democracy over there. But we have nothing to show for it.

“What we do have is a moral responsibility for what's about to transpire in Cambodia this weekend.”

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