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Smooth elections a sound strategy – at least for now

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Prime Minister Hun Sen (right), with his wife Bun Rany (left), votes in Kandal last Sunday. Heng Chivoan

Smooth elections a sound strategy – at least for now

Sunday’s election day saw a handful of CNRP voters temporarily detained, 12 independent election observers illegally booted from their polling stations and soldiers seemingly stationed in communes with tight races in order to sway the vote in the ruling party’s favour.

But the irregularities, while concerning, were a far cry from those seen at 2013’s national poll, which saw a riot in Phnom Penh, voters chased from polling stations, widespread voter list problems and registration rates exceeding 125 percent in some provinces – not to mention a yearlong opposition boycott of parliament over disputed results.

And though the months preceding this year’s election saw the ruling party launch repeated attacks on the West in what analysts suggested was an effort to undermine the credibility of eventual criticism over the election, that criticism does not appear to be forthcoming.

In the communes visited by its 40 election observer teams, Sunday’s vote was “orderly and peaceful”, according to a statement from the US Embassy in Cambodia. “Yesterday’s election is an important milestone in Cambodia’s continued democratic development,” it adds.

The UN joined America in congratulating Cambodia on its successful election. “The UN Human Rights Office for South-East Asia welcomed the orderly conduct of voting in the communal elections held across Cambodia on 4 June, and expressed hope that the smooth and peaceful poll bodes well for the democratic process ahead of next year’s general election,” it said in a statement.

But while the smoothness of the election may have taken some by surprise, analysts now say it may have been a strategic decision by a ruling party that did not feel threatened by the opposition, and should not be read as a fundamental shift towards a more functional democracy in the Kingdom.

“Despite the fact that a cleaner election might mean less communes for the CPP, what it gains is crucial information,” Australian researcher Lee Morgenbesser said in an email on Wednesday. “Against the backdrop of the 2018 national election, it now knows the precise location and approximate strength of CNRP support. This allows the ruling party to more effectively target patronage and repression in the many months ahead.”

Indeed, CNRP leader Kem Sokha claimed on Wednesday the CPP was planning just that, pointing to a purported CPP post-mortem of the vote in Kandal in which a party official suggests withholding funds from CNRP communes “to make the people who voted for the opposition experience difficulties”.

Meanwhile, Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, warned that this week’s election was only evidence that Hun Sen is willing to use democratic institutions when it benefits him. “There was peacefulness because the CPP did well . . . The CPP would always prefer to be elected fairly,” Strangio said, adding that if a fair victory weren’t an option, the ruling party would find another way.

Carlyle Thayer, an expert on Southeast Asia relations, also believes the opposition simply didn’t pose enough of a threat to the ruling party to justify widespread irregularities. “The opposition didn’t do very well,” he said, adding that Cambodia’s local commune elections are by nature “heavily stacked in favour of the incumbents”.

What’s more, he added, there was an “atmosphere of intimidation” leading up to the vote.

While observers were happy to say the election day itself was smooth, many noted that the election could not be labelled free and fair due to the months of threats and human rights abuses from the government that preceded the vote.

Analysts were also united in the opinion that Sunday’s stability is not an indicator that the 2018 national election will be similarly smooth. “2018 will definitely be much closer and the stakes will be much, much higher,” said analyst Ou Virak.

Morgenbesser, for his part, said he expected “significant problems . . . The sheer stakes and the foreseeable lack of international [Western] pressure mean the CPP will be more willing to violate the sanctity of elections.”

According to Strangio, the prime minister himself is the “pivotal point” of Cambodian society, and “there will be a lot more tension and possibility of instability” when the country’s top job is up for grabs in 2018.

“Hun Sen’s popularity may be slipping but his power, strength, and control of resources remains intact, and that, historically, is what determines Cambodian elections.”

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