Voting is under way in Cambodia’s general election. Officially, there are 20 different political parties on Sunday’s ballot. But for many voters in this small Southeast Asian nation, there is no real choice.
The election, the country’s sixth since democracy was restored in 1993, has been condemned as a “sham” by rights groups, following the dissolution of the main opposition party and a crackdown on the press by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
In areas away from the capital, voters spoke of a variety of intimidation tactics deployed by the CPP.
“Some people are afraid of talking politics,” said one man, who asked to be identified only by his nickname, Bo. According to Bo, the CPP, which under Prime Minister Hun Sen has governed the country for 33 years, punishes those who vote for the opposition.
In rural Cambodia, the village chief and commune counselors issue documents for everything from marriages to land purchases, making people like Bo reliant on them for simple everyday transactions.
If they know someone supports the opposition “you have to go (back) three or four times before they agree (to issue the documents),” Bo told CNN from his village home in Traing District, Takeo Province.
“They put pressure on your family and if you are a powerful man they can kill you too, like Kem Ley.”
In 2016, Kem Ley, a political analyst and government critic, was shot dead in broad daylight at a cafe in the capital city, Phnom Penh. A man jailed for the killing in 2017 said he shot Ley over a debt, but for many, including Human Rights Watch, the killing was politically motivated.
Since Ley’s killing, the government has arrested opposition leader Kem Sokha for treason and pro-government courts dissolved his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) soon after.
The authorities also launched a series of ongoing attacks on the press, arresting several journalists and closing the Cambodia Daily newspaper over a tax dispute.
In May, staff at the English-language newspaper the Phnom Penh Post resigned en mass following the sale of the paper to a Malaysian tycoon who demanded changes to an article detailing his links with Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Since 2017, Cambodia has dropped 10 places in the World Press Freedom Index.
Biggest opposition party
The CNRP was the country’s biggest opposition party and won 3 million votes, around 44% of the total, during the last general elections in 2013. They accused the ruling party of cheating and the country was rocked by massive protests.
This year, however, Freedom Square, the traditional rallying point of the opposition, has been fenced off and renamed Exchange Square. Only the CPP has held large rallies in the capital. In the days leading up to the ballot, opposition party cars could be seen trundling through the streets of Phnom Penh flanked by a handful of supporters.
The CPP dwarfs the 19 competing parties, eight of which have only been formed in the last 18 months.
With members of the CNRP banned from involvement in politics for five years, and smaller parties unlikely to command much of the vote, the path to victory has been set for Prime Minister Hun Sen.
That win is likely to be bolstered by efforts to dissuade voters like Bo from voting for anyone other than the ruling party.
Sam Rainsy, who led the CNRP’s campaign in 2013, has been living in exile in France to avoid imprisonment for defamation — a conviction he says is politically motivated.
“This sham election is intended to legitimize Hun Sen’s killing of democracy in Cambodia with his arbitrary dissolution of the CNRP as the only credible opposition party. With no real challenger Hun Sen’s victory is a hollow and laughable one,” Rainsy said Friday.
Members of the ruling party rubbish Rainsy’s assessment. In the country’s capital the spokesman for the party’s cabinet,-Phay Siphan, told CNN that the new parties had a fair chance to promote their “new ideas.”
When asked about Bo’s case, he said that any intimidation by CPP officials was “illegal” and should be stopped.
CPP support base
Supporters of the CPP say the party brought Cambodia together after the Khmer Rouge genocide and two decades of civil war. They also point to the country’s burgeoning economy.
Venerable Sareun, head monk at Baray Pagoda in Takeo, agrees. “The CPP helped us rebuild after the war,” he said, counting the first of three reasons he supports the party. “They are keeping the peace in the country and they are developing Cambodia with new roads and buildings.”
The CPP has indeed presided over high growth in recent years. “Robust economic growth averaging 7.6% per year in the past two decades has transformed Cambodia from one of the world’s poorest countries to a lower middle-income country today,” Sodeth Ly, an economist at the World Bank, wrote in 2016.
But critics say that wealth is not evenly distributed.
According to human rights watchdog Global Witness, most of the wealth has flowed to Prime Minister Hun Sen and his close-knit circle of supporters. In a July 20 report the organization claimed a business elite backed by Hun Sen are “set to profit from the sham poll.”
As pillars of Hun Sen’s regime, this small cohort of business people and politicians have enjoyed impunity and the chance to pillage state assets, the report alleged.
“This includes senators whose companies are accused of some of the most violent land grabbing Cambodia has seen this century, large-scale timber smuggling, a massive sand dredging scandal, and marijuana trafficking,” it said.
While the government has not yet responded to the most recent allegations, Hun Sen’s daughter and sons have previously criticized Global Witness and dismissed a similar report in 2016 as “lies and deceit.”
Cambodian-American author and academic Sophal Ear said that Cambodia has descended into dictatorship.
“What’s happening in Cambodia is the equivalent of Trump arranging for the Supreme Court of the United States to dissolve the Democratic Party for treason and then holding an election in 2020 with the Republican Party and 19 small parties that have no chance of beating the GOP,” he said via email.
“Trump would then have arranged for the shuttering of the New York Times on bogus tax evasion charges and arranged the forced sale of the Washington Post to Rupert Murdoch of Fox News, resulting in only pro-Trump news everywhere.”
In his village, Bo rocked back and forth on his wooden bench as he considered it all. “I feel upset because in a democracy we need to have an opposition party, especially one strong enough to compete with the ruling party, but (now) there is only one party,” he said.
“I heard there are a lot of parties that have joined this mandate but I don’t have any information about them … there is only one CPP.”