Four months out from the July elections, senior Cambodian People’s Party officials at home and abroad have called on people to exercise their vote in July – even if they don’t vote for the CPP – amid predictions of low turnout and waning enthusiasm for the upcoming elections in light of the opposition’s dissolution.
The government last year embarked on a wide-ranging crackdown that saw the arrest of Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha on “treason” charges, the forced dismantling of his party and heightened harassment and closure of media outlets and civil society groups.
Governments and international organisations have been quick to decry the July elections as illegitimate as long as the CNRP – which enjoyed substantial support nationwide – is absent from the ballot.
On a tumultuous trip to Australia last weekend, Prime Minister Hun Sen led the charge in calling on Cambodians to exercise their right to vote and admonished any calls from the opposition to boycott the ballot.
“I should tell you that you are walking on the wrong way. In the political and strategic perspective, it is wrong,” he told a group of supporters at an event in Sydney on the sidelines of an Australia-Asean summit.
“We want people to use their right, and if they do not vote for us, they vote for the other party that they like,” he said, making a rare suggestion to vote for a party other than the CPP.
National Assembly President Heng Samrin continued the theme at the inauguration of a pagoda in Tbong Khmum province on Sunday, calling on voters to turn up at polling stations on July 29, and asking them not to fall for suggestions otherwise. “Do not believe the incitement of biased and extremist people that want to incite and confuse the truth,” he was quoted in government mouthpiece Fresh News.
Last year’s commune elections saw around 90 percent voter turnout, with the CPP taking 50 percent of the vote and CNRP claiming 44 percent. In 2013’s national elections, which only saw 69 percent turnout, the vote split was largely the same.
In the absence of the CNRP and its nearly 3 million voters, the CPP is expected to increase its current tally of 79 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly, 11 of which were taken from the opposition following a redistribution of its elected positions.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan struck a similar tone to his leaders, saying the call for votes was only to remind citizens of their obligation to participate in the electoral process. He dismissed the request had anything to do with the CNRP’s absence and potentially low turnout.
“The most important thing is that they need to fulfil their obligation as the citizen in accordance with the constitution stating that each citizen shall determine the country’s destiny via the election,” he said.
Former CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said the government was increasingly paranoid over the prospects of the July elections and unsure about turnout. “Without the opposition in the elections they are so paranoid and unsure. Because we continue to have people power and it does not belong to the CPP,” she said.
Sochua predicted a near-halving of the 2017 voter turnout, expecting only around 40 percent to turn up on election day, but stopping short of calling for a boycott. “Our message to the voters and the international community that there will be no free and fair elections without the CNRP,” she added.
Elections expert Yoeurng Sotheara noted that, legally speaking, an election’s result isn’t tied to turnout, but given simmering anger among disenfranchised opposition voters, a low turnout was highly possible. “If there is a high voter percentage, it shows that what the ruling party has done before is not a mistake,” he said, referring to the crackdown. “But I think that it will decline lower than commune council election [levels].”
Accountability advocate San Chey, meanwhile, said a low turnout could bring image problems. “If there is a high percentage of people who are not going to vote, it can be evaluated that the election also has problems, especially in the opinion of other countries,” he said.