The Cambodian People’s Party won 70 percent of the country’s 1,646 commune councils at yesterday’s elections, according to unofficial results published by a government-aligned media outlet – a marked drop from the 97 percent it won in 2012 but one far smaller than the opposition had been hoping to inflict.
The results, published by Fresh News, said the CPP won 1,163 communes to the Cambodian National Rescue Party’s 482 but did not indicate the breakdown of the popular vote. National Election Committee spokesman Hang Puthea said he could not confirm the results.
The CPP won a whopping 1,592 of 1,632 communes in the June 2012 elections, with the two parties that later formed the CNRP winning only 40 between them – a 12th of what they won yesterday – but the opposition had been hoping for much larger gains.
Opposition leader Kem Sokha has said that the CNRP hoped to win at least 60 percent of the popular vote. Party spokesman Yim Sovann said at a press conference last night it had probably lost the nationwide popular vote 46 percent to the CPP’s 51 percent.
Yet he nevertheless characterised the CNRP’s more than tenfold gains in its communes held – and its claimed 16 percent increase in popular vote compared to 2012 – as a triumph ahead of the July 2018 national elections.
“This is a big victory for the CNRP,” Sovann told reporters at a press conference held at the opposition party’s headquarters last night after the unofficial results were released, adding that he believed the results boded well ahead of next year’s vote.
“This means that we will manage around 500 communes in the upcoming mandate. Those are very big communes. There is potential for economic growth, and many people living there. We can conclude that [after] the 2018 election, the CNRP will rule the country.”
“We expect 60 percent of the vote at that election.”
However, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan described the results as an overwhelming victory for the ruling party and a repudiation of the opposition’s claims it has been riding a wave of growing popular support that would make its victory inevitable in July next year.
“The CPP won around 71 percent [of the communes] and the CNRP won around 29 percent,” Eysan said, adding that the ruling party’s internal numbers also showed it had increased its nationwide popular vote compared to the 2013 national election.
“Although the CPP dropped a number of communes, the number of voters [for the party] increased compared to 2013,” he said. “The CNRP now has increased its number of communes – but if it was compared to 2013, this party has lost more than 200 communes.”
The CPP defeated the CNRP at the disputed 2013 national election with 48.8 percent of the vote to the CNRP’s 44.4 percent, but many in the opposition had argued – even as they aimed for 60 percent – that the party would have a harder time in local elections.
Voting went mostly without incident, with the first election run since the formation of the bipartisan NEC receiving the tick of approval of local elections monitors, who had observers at booths around the country reporting back to Phnom Penh.
“The elections at the polling stations went smoothly today,” Koul Panha, head of local elections group Comfrel, said at a press conference after voting closed, explaining his coalition of NGOs known as “The Situation Room” received few reports of irregularities. “We only had a few cases,” Panha said, noting the group had 14,000 observers around the country.
“There were no big cases of worry, because our observers were told to report them immediately, and they did not.”
Panha said observers had to be pulled out from two locations in Kandal province due to intimidation, and that there were 19 communes where large numbers of nonresident soldiers had registered and voted, and that the group would be investigating both issues in the coming days.
Around the country, the CNRP made the largest of its gains in Phnom Penh, Battambang, Siem Reap and Kampong Cham – the home province of Prime Minister Hun Sen, where the opposition won 76 of the 109 communes on offer, according to the unofficial results published by Fresh News.
In Phnom Penh, the CNRP took 54 communes to the CPP’s 51, preliminary results showed, while in Battambang it won 48 communes to the CPP’s 54 – having won none of the communes in the province at the 2012 vote. In Siem Reap, the CNRP won 56 to the CPP’s 44.
The CPP had its most devastating victories in provinces like Pursat, where it won all of the 49 communes; Stung Treng, where it won 33 communes to the CNRP’s one; and the tiny seaside province of Kep, where it won all of the five communes available.
In Kandal province’s Takhmao town, Hun Sen opened the day’s voting to some fanfare, arriving at the city’s provincial teacher training centre with his wife Bun Rany to greet voters before entering the booths to choose their commune chiefs for the next five years.
The pair were in and out of the complex in 10 minutes, with Hun Sen only stopping briefly to speak with media to complain about some illegal campaigning – and about a Post reporter who asked him who he voted for as he was leaving the polling station.
“A moment ago, [there was] a person with white eyes, and if a Westerner [asks] that, they’re probably too stupid,” Hun Sen said, explaining that everyone’s vote was secret. “Even if they vote for who they vote for, they will not tell you because that’s the right of the citizen.”
A few hours later, Sokha, the CNRP leader, placed his own vote about 30 minutes away from Hun Sen’s polling station, at the Chak Angkre primary school in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district.
“I am feeling energised,” Sokha said after casting his vote, continuing to predict a large victory for the opposition in the commune polls. “It all depends on the people. I expect to win 60 percent.”
In Prey Veng province, a long-time bastion of the CPP where the ruling party won 73 commune councils yesterday to the CNRP’s 43, most of those who turned out to the booths declined to say who they had voted for, but said economic development was the main issue.
“Work here is not hard to find, but it’s low paying for hard work,” said Phlung Sophy, 44, who voted in Svay Antor commune, and said his two sons would have also joined him to vote but were working as fishermen in Malaysia.
“Hundreds of villagers from my village went to Malaysia, Japan and Korea,” Sophy said, echoing the comments of many others in the district, who said hundreds of people had also left to find better paying work in Thailand. “They wanted to vote, but could not.”
Sophy said he only expected the trend to continue, with more poor villagers in his community effectively disenfranchising themselves at future elections by leaving for overseas.
“They would come back if they have good work and acceptable pay.”
In Takeo, the CPP annihilated the CNRP with 82 communes to 18 – but the result was still better than 2012, when the opposition parties won no communes at all.
One major commune the opposition party managed to pick up was Tram Kak district’s Tram Kak commune – where a three-term incumbent was retiring.
The CNRP managed to win the major commune with 3,327 votes to the CPP’s 2,978, according to Cheav Bros, the head of the commune election committee, with some locals blaming the CPP for selecting a new candidate for commune chief who was unqualified.
“The CNRP beat the CPP because the new CPP candidate, a vendor, was someone that the people did not know before,” said Tram Kak Commune Police Chief Sok Thom, suggesting there were questions about how the CPP’s new commune chief candidate was selected.
“People in my commune think that the CPP is corrupt,” he said. “If the old candidate, Saom Pov, had still stood for election, the CPP would have won again.”
Ou Virak, a political analyst who heads the Future Forum, said he believed that many in the ruling party would have been taking breaths of relief last night, but that the CNRP’s failures to live up to its own expectations should not give the CPP false hope.
“I think the CPP should feel better in a sense,” Virak said. “There’s been a lot of uncertainty, and at least they can be relieved they can still win even if they suffer setbacks. More importantly, the CNRP did not manage expectations well before these elections.”
Virak said Sokha’s claims that the CNRP hoped to win 60 percent of the popular vote could come back to bite the party. Aiming to instead win more than 30 percent of the councils – the figure the CNRP appears to have won – would have been more realistic, he said.
With the opposition having secured 30 percent of council seats in more difficult commune council elections, he said, it would be hard to say which party would now be more confident about winning next year’s national election.
“If they pushed past 30 percent, the momentum would be on their side,” he said. “Now they might not have that momentum. They were likely going to bank on that momentum instead of policies, so maybe now they will go with new policies and better messaging.”
“This makes 2018 more difficult,” he said. “It makes it difficult to know who has the momentum.”
Reporting by Alex Willemyns, Ananth Baliga, Chhay Channyda, Phak Seangly, Khouth Sophak Chakrya, Soth Koemsoeun, Alessandro Marazzi Sassoon, Touch Sokha, Meta Kong and Martin de Bourmont
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