Cambodia's subnational elections went off without a hitch yesterday, with the opposition’s improved performance in 2012’s commune elections translating into solid gains at the district, provincial and municipal levels – though a bit more modest than the party had predicted.
Yesterday’s vote was open only to the Kingdom’s roughly 11,000 commune councillors, and in spite of isolated cross-party voting, the results stuck closely to party lines, according to largely identical unofficial results released by the two parties.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party won a majority in two districts – one in Prey Veng and another in Kampong Cham province – and captured about 23 per cent of the seats up for grabs, a figure that represents significant gains on their previous position, and that was only a few points shy of the party’s share of seats at the commune level.
The CPP, however, maintained its grip on the lion’s share of positions, winning a total of 2,543 seats.
Though CNRP president Sam Rainsy had previously predicted his party would win in six districts, he nonetheless heralded yesterday’s results as a victory for “democratic forces”.
“It means that the democratic forces represented by [the CNRP] have our representatives in every district,” Rainsy said, trumpeting the unprecedented gain of council chief positions in two districts. “This is the first time that democracy has invaded into the structure of the state at the grassroots level, [and] that we have received the titles of district council presidents in a district in Prey Veng and a district in Kampong Cham province. It means that now the democratic forces can hold on against the ruling party.
“[The CPP] cannot do whatever it wishes, and we will use our forces to bring democracy to the grassroots,” he added.
Rainsy also mentioned taking steps to restart the stalled dialogue between his party and the CPP over the opposition’s ongoing boycott of parliament.
Longtime CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap confirmed yesterday that new discussions were in the works, but blamed the last breakdown in talks on a disagreement between Rainsy and CNRP Deputy President Kem Sokha, and suggested that the CNRP focus on internal unity before returning to the table.
As for yesterday’s results, Yeap expressed little concern at the opposition’s gains.
“We just received the general election results. Of the 197 districts and cities, the CPP has [won] 195. Two only [went] to the CNRP,” Yeap said.
“I approve of this result,” he added.
At Yokunthor High School in Phnom Penh’s Chamkarmon district, the site of the largest polling station in the city, voting finished before 9am, and the counting – attended by a handful of observers and local councillors, most of them from the opposition – was a largely subdued affair.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said during a visit to the station that without universal suffrage, the election was “not important at all”, but nonetheless decried the government’s disruption of opposition campaign rallies in the lead-up and accused the CPP of trying to buy votes.
“Our members have been tried with phone calls for vote buying, but none of us have sold our conscience or fear any intimidation,” he said.
The results at Yokunthor were mostly unsurprising.
At the district level, the vote split cleanly along party lines, with the CPP earning 75 votes to the CNRP’s 33. At the municipal level, however, the CNRP managed to pick up an extra vote, which became a cause for celebration among the opposition councillors still observing the proceedings.
Despite having still lost by 40 votes, one CNRP supporter crowed into a cellphone, “Thirty-four! Thirty-four!”
Iv Thavy, a CPP observer at the station, said he was untroubled by the lost vote.
“We lost one vote, but it’s a democratic election, and it’s the freedom of the voter,” he said. “We saw the counting and we cannot deny the result. I accept it.”
The CNRP also won another symbolic victory yesterday in the form of a public defection by CPP Deputy District Governor Nhem En of Oddar Meanchey province’s Anlong Veng district.
Known to most for his history as the official photographer at the Khmer Rouge’s infamous S-21 torture centre, En said yesterday that he had become disillusioned with the CPP after they failed to help his son, who En maintained was wrongfully convicted of the murder of his wife.
“Today, I handed my weapon to the district governor and officially resigned as deputy district governor in order to join the CNRP,” said En, who has held the post for almost 20 years, ever since Khmer Rouge forces reintegrated with the government in 1996.
“I served the CPP very long, but the party cannot help find justice for my family member,” he added.
En maintained that he would run as a parliamentarian in the next national election, but CNRP spokesmen could not be reached last night to confirm the assertion.
REPORTING BY STUART WHITE, MEAS SOKCHEA, CHHAY CHANNYDA AND VONG SOKHENG