‘A fundamentally flawed, mockery of democracy’: It’s time for Cambodia’s election

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Cambodian police force stand in formation during inspection ceremony at the Olympic National stadium in Phnom Penh on July 25, 2018 in preparation for the July 29 general election Source: Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP

“A SHAM”, “fundamentally flawed”, “a mockery of democracy” – these are just some of the words used to describe Cambodia’s election this weekend.

Despite overwhelming criticism, Prime Minister Hun Sen has forged unapologetically ahead with Sunday’s ballot and Cambodians will head to the polls knowing there is only one realistic outcome.

The former Khmer Rouge general’s brazen approach of quashing civil dissent and dissolving all credible opposition has left him the sure winner. But there could still be one way for those who stand against Hun Sen to scupper his 33-year rule and rob him of legitimacy.

Will the people take the option of boycott? What consequences will they face if they do? And will there be protests? Here’s what you need to know as we go into Sunday’s vote:

The problems

Where to start? Hun Sen’s government has led a comprehensive assault on the state of democracy, the steps of which were decried in a statement from Human Rights Watch on Wednesday.

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“The Cambodian government over the past year has systematically cracked down on independent and opposition voices to ensure that the ruling party faces no obstacles to total political control,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

“Dissolving the main opposition party and banning many of its senior members from politics means this election cannot possibly reflect the will of the Cambodian people.”

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On top of the dissolution of opposition Cambodia National Rescue People (CNRP), the government has overseen a crackdown on independent media, jailed CNRP leader Kem Sokha, curtailed equal access to the media, and implemented repressive laws restricting speech, association, and assembly.

According to HRW, the national election commission is not independent and senior military and police officials have been continuously campaigning for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The boycott

With all those issues going into the election, it’s not hard to see why the campaign for a boycott of Sunday’s vote has gained traction.

Started by former opposition members, the “Clean Finger” campaign has grown into a significant movement and is pretty much the only thing that threatens Hun Sen’s internal credibility after the vote.

Hun Sen needs people to show up.

While it’s inevitable the CPP will get a landslide win, without voter numbers in the higher percentile Hun Sen will have no legitimacy to claim his rule is the will of the people.

For many voters, it’s the last weapon they have left to wield on a battlefield stacked convincingly against them. But they could face major consequences if they choose to use it.

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The government has ordered authorities to arrest anyone who uploads images on social media in support of the boycott campaign. Sar Kheng, the interior minister and ruling CPP deputy president, also said Cambodians who were found to have taken part in the campaign would be fined up to 20 million riels (US$5,000).

There has also been recent reports of intimidation of garment workers by their bosses who are ordering them to vote for the CPP or “face consequences.”

Protests

In a bid to curtail any unrest before it even begins, Cambodia’s armed forces have been putting on a show of power, displaying anti-riot gear and weapons at a sports stadium in the capital Phnom Penh on Wednesday.

The total of 4,625 police officers wearing flak jackets and armed with automatic rifles made for an intimidating sight. With such unambiguous messages being broadcast, it’s unlikely people will be taking to the streets in protest, regardless of the result.

But as Mu Sochua, former vice president of the CNRP, put it when asked about protests: “Anything could happen.”

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