Just as in 2008, I registered myself with the National Election Committee (NEC) as an independent observer for the Cambodian parliamentary elections that took place on July 28, 2013. According to the NEC’s own records, they accredited a total of 40,142 national and 191 international election observers. On July 28, 9.67 million eligible voters were called upon to cast their votes in one of the more than 19,000 polling stations nationwide for one of the eight parties standing for election. The 123 seats of the National Assembly will be distributed among the parties according to the share of votes won, and their representatives will elect the new government.
The presence of international election observers, in comparison to previous parliamentary elections, was marginal since the EU, among others, abstained from deploying observers. Following the last election in 2008, the official EU observer mission issued a report, whose goal was to make “concrete recommendations to ensure that Cambodia's election framework is brought in line with international standards for democratic elections.” This included recommendations to ensure the independence and impartiality of the National Election Committee, to prevent tampering of voter registration, and to ensure balanced media coverage in the run up to the elections. Martin Callavan, who led the EU observer delegation, said at the time that the October 14, 2008 report “marks the end of the EU mission, but its recommendations should also constitute a starting point” for reforms.
Since the EU came to the conclusion, before the elections, that the Cambodian government had made no effort over the past five years to implement the recommendations, they refrained from dispatching election observers again.
Interestingly, however, the public discussion of voter list manipulation, the dubious role of the NEC, and the bias of state media had taken on such a life of its own in the period leading up to the election that the first concrete accusations already became apparent during the campaign. Young supporters of the opposition, for example, were regularly seen carrying paper mâché cameras sporting the logos of state broadcasters in their motorcades. This was an ironic way of expressing their sincere criticism of the state media, which had completely ignored their presence and their political demands.
Basically, the month-long election campaign, through the intensity and openness with which the supporters of the opposition aired their disappointments over the CPP-led government, surprised most observers. In contrast to 2008, there was not an ounce of fear to be felt for those who publically and loudly called for political change.
On Election Day, I travelled to the province of Kandal, where Prime Minister Hun Sen has his official residence and was number one on the CPP list of candidates for a seat in the National Assembly. Aside from the eleven seats it has to allocate in the National Assembly, it is also a province with symbolic character. The local authorities, therefore, were under considerable pressure from the leadership of the ruling CPP to deliver the expected results. The people, apparently, had other ideas in mind.
During the course of the day, I visited a total of seven stations in which votes were cast. The atmosphere within the vicinity of most polling stations was very tense. The people who were there appeared to be well-informed and were concerned about possible manipulation of voter lists. According to Cambodian election law, one can only vote where one is officially registered. Many people expressed concern that illegitimate voters, with fake documents, would attempt to access polling stations that were considered critical by the ruling party. They spoke openly about reports that were circulating, for example, that whole military units were being relocated for the elections from marginal, sparsely populated provinces, such as Oddur Meanchey or Preah Vihear, that only had one seat to allocate, to the more “important” province of Siem Reap, where the defense minister from the ruling CPP was first on his party’s list of candidates for the National Assembly.
Tensions in front of the polling stations
Many people did not go home after voting, instead, they stayed at the polling stations to, according to their own accounts, help prevent fraud. The first escalated situation came from the community of Saang Phnom, where a large group gathered in the morning before polling station 1204. They alleged that several small buses had arrived, carrying people who were not registered in the municipality, but that still wanted to vote there. The police moved in, the polling station was closed, and a citizen from the community was arrested.
Later in the afternoon, representatives from local authorities and the police returned to the polling location and offered to free the arrested community member if the community was willing to allow the people against whom they were protesting to vote. The waiting crowd refused the offer. The detainee was released from police custody nine hours later with no charges having been pressed.
There were similar tensions at other polling stations, however, without police intervention. The citizens’ distrust of the leadership and the organization of the elections were palpable throughout. Only a few who remained on site showed a fundamental trust in the precision of the voter list and the election process in general.
In contrast to the elections of 2008, the citizens spoke openly this time of their concerns and showed no fear to get involved, although they had no legal authority and should have been afraid of legal repercussions.
After the polling stations closed at 3 p.m., groups of people, who refused to be kept from following the count, gathered around the windows at the stations. Even this is a violation of the applicable election laws, which stipulate that only authorized personnel and observers are allowed to be present in and around the polling station during the count. But the guards could not, or did not want to prevent them from observing the count. Many people made notes and carefully documented the results from their polling station.
In polling stations 1082, 1083, 1084 and 1280 in the community of Takmao, where I followed the counting, the opposition CNRP was ahead of the CPP. After the first unofficial results, 56 per cent of the votes in Kandal went to the opposition, while 40 per cent of the citizens voted for the ruling party. If this result is confirmed, the opposition would receive a total of 6 of the 11 seats that are allotted to the province.
Shortly after the first unofficial results were announced, there were already reports from the district Saang of further tensions. Villagers felt harassed by government authorities, especially from mayors and their delegates from the governing CPP. According to the villagers of one community in the municipality of Saang Phnom, local security militia were sent “to find ten individuals” to stand in connection with the protests that took place outside of polling station 1204.
A representative from the Cambodian human rights organization ADHOC summarized the situation after the elections in Kandal in an interview as follows:
“Normally, the intimidation takes place before the elections. This time it is completely different from previous elections. Now these threats are taking place after the election, because the local authorities are upset that the people did not vote for the CPP.”
“In my village, the CPP had distributed 700 sarongs before the election. After the count, they only had 300 votes,” described one villager in the same interview as he was questioned about the harsh reaction of the local authorities after the election results.
The representative from ADHOC also confirmed that cases of politically motivated intimidation reported to his organization since the elections in Kandal had increased.
The official results
On August 12, the NEC announced the first official preliminary results, under heavy criticism from the opposing parties. They criticized the NEC for having preliminarily announced the results before an independent panel of representatives from political parties, civil society and the United Nations had the chance to examine the allegations of electoral fraud. But the preliminary results already make clear how close it was in some provinces. In Kandal, for example, the opposition is just 0.03% (or 166 votes) away from gaining an additional seat (7 out of 11) in the National Assembly.
The tensions in Kandal clearly illustrate how volatile the situation remains in the whole country after the elections. Last week, the government brought armored vehicles and military to Phnom Penh. The people reacted nervously. Photos that were taken from autos and circulated on social media networks showed the armored vehicles driving into the city. Many people began to stock emergency rations, and the price of rice immediately increased.
It is impossible to predict at this point, how responsibly the representatives of the party and, in particular, the government will manage these tensions in order to avoid an escalation.