The ruling Cambodian People’s Party saw its ironclad grip on the National Assembly weaken dramatically, dropping 22 seats in winning 68 of 123, with the opposition the beneficiary and the CPP’s royalist coalition partners winning none at all in an election rife with alleged irregularities.
Though polls – which opened at 7am – were calm for the most part, isolated incidents of violence in Phnom Penh, Kandal and Prey Veng attested to the unusually tense atmosphere surrounding this election, the most fiercely contested in a decade.
And though the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party made unprecedented gains, party officials said they believed their share of the vote was far higher than reported, while election monitors warned of widespread irregularities.
According to figures released by the CPP and concurrently posted on other government websites including that of the National Counter-Terrorism Committee, the opposition won in four provinces: Phnom Penh, Kampong Cham, Prey Veng and Kandal, and made inroads on every CPP stronghold.
CNRP lawmaker Tioulong Saumura, said the gains were likely even stronger.
“I think they are higher [in our favour],” said Saumura, who is also opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s wife. “But I think it’s a big victory, even if we were to accept those figures that have come in violation of the law.”
Senior CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun conceded that the party would need to “make some reforms, review and work harder” in the wake of the early results.
A tense day
With numerous names missing from voter lists, allegations of illegal voting, and concerns over the quality of the election ink and ballot paper, pressure at times exploded into violence.
In Phnom Penh’s Stung Meanchey commune, a riot broke out in the afternoon as voters left off the list contested the results of the election, claiming officials had allowed Vietnamese to illegally vote.
About 100 police officers poured in, surrounding the pagoda, where they were met with rock-throwing demonstrators who overturned two military police cars before setting them on fire. At least one man was injured and sent to the hospital, while protesters detained the polling station director.
The incident mirrored one that took place earlier in the day in nearby Kbal Koh commune, where 500 people blocked allegedly illegal Vietnamese voters from casting ballots. Similar scenes played out elsewhere across Phnom Penh and were widely disseminated on social media.
Similarly, in Prey Veng’s Kanh Chriech district, at least 100 people incited rallies against people they considered “outsiders” coming to vote in Kdoeung Reay commune.
An 18-year-old was detained as authorities sought to crack down on the riot, which they said was unwarranted as every voter had been registered in that area for a year.
“Villagers don’t understand the election law and reacted this way because they have never seen these people before. That’s why police and military police were down here,” said deputy commune chief Yem Yuhorn, seeking to explain a heavy military presence.
Large numbers of police, military police and military could be seen across the country. After the ballots closed, armed forces were deployed across Phnom Penh and in front of Hun Sen’s house and CPP headquarters, panicking many, who ran to stock up on food and emptied ATMs around the capital.
“We deployed the armed forces to protect the security after the election,” said National Military Police spokesman Kheng Tito.
“I think it is normal for armed forces to protect the security to prevent any incident after the election,” he said.
Though violence affected only a handful of areas, alleged irregularities were rife, election monitors Comfrel, the National Democratic Institute and Transparency International reported.
“Based on the standards of democracy and the principle of democracies worldwide, for that to meet the [international] standards of elections, Cambodia’s elections fell short,” Preap Kol, executive director of TI Cambodia, said at a conference held last night.
“The campaign environment is better this year, better than 2008 for violence, but when you look at what happened today with the polls and the chaos at the polls, when you see that, then the elections this year are worse.”
Observers recorded unprecedented voter list problems, “unusual” numbers of police at polling stations and at least two stations that were moved without prior notice.
“In some areas, this has led to outrage and mobs,” he said, adding that the ease with which indelible ink could be removed from fingers led to another series of problems.
Though NEC officials insisted the ink was just one of many safeguards, at least some people managed to cast multiple ballots. At a Meanchey district polling station, one man told the Post he’d easily voted twice once the ink was removed – once for him, another time for a relative whose name should have been on the list but was left off.
Comfrel reported Sunday night that more than 200 individual irregularities had been recorded, the bulk of which related to missing voter list names.
Earlier this year, NDI warned that upwards of a million people were wrongly left off the voter list of 9.6 million and highlighted a raft of issues – including registration rates exceeding 125 per cent in some provinces.
Opposition leader Rainsy, who was left off both the voter and candidate lists despite a royal pardon that overturned his convictions, said the party was highly concerned.
Speaking at a Sothearos polling station in Bassac commune, one of several stations he stopped at over the course of the day, Rainsy told reporters that voters were growing increasingly upset.
“Many people could not find their names, so they are lost and they feel very sad not to be able to cast their ballots. I see that they have set it up to be difficult for people who are known not to support [the CPP] side. So they make people’s names vanish,” he said.
At a press conference held at National Election Committee headquarters shortly after the ballots were counted, chairman Im Suosdey denied reports of large-scale problems, saying the instances of violence were the only troubles faced at the polls.
Rather than problems with the voter list or registration issues, insisted Suosdey, the age of the voters was to blame for the isolated skirmishes.
“In the 2008 election, there were not many youths, so the situation was not chaotic. We try to avoid the problem, especially authorities try to avoid problem in the polling station,” he told reporters.
Another group of observers was similarly sanguine about the day’s turnout.
Speaking at an NEC-organised conference, representatives from the International Conference of Asian Political Parties – a group of foreign monitors whose trip was sponsored by the CPP – lauded the election.
Touring the capital since Friday, delegates from countries including South Korea, Azerbaijan, Laos, the Russian Federation, Malaysia and Thailand allegedly only witnessed “fair and transparent democratic proceedings”, according to Russia’s delegate, one of nine who refused to give their names to the handful of reporters who attended the briefing.
Tough pill for CPP
If preliminary results are accurate, the tally sees the CPP drop to its lowest vote share in 15 years.
While its majority stands, and the party will retain power thanks to the constitution’s “50-plus-one” proviso, officials appeared somewhat cowed yesterday.
“The success is not like the election in 2008, and we will have to make some reforms, review and work harder,” admitted senior CPP lawmaker Vun.
Vun also took pains to point to the opposition success as proof positive of Cambodia’s functioning democracy.
“It’s a good democracy in Cambodia, as we have a strong challenge from the opposition.”
For Funcinpec, which appeared to have not won a single seat in spite of promises that a royalist merger had re-energised the party, a measure of denial seemed the word of the day.
“I don’t yet know what the actual results are,” Funcinpec spokesman Tum Sambo said. “I will follow this up in every province. But it’s not yet confirmed.”
The CNRP, meanwhile, gave conflicting information, withdrawing a statement claiming victory, which was issued shortly after the polls closed, and instead urging supporters to stay calm.
“Today is a historic day, the day that citizens have expressed their will. There is nothing more important than the people’s real will; we are democrats and must respect and congratulate,” Rainsy said at a press conference.
“I would like to appeal to all CNRP supporters to absolutely avoid using violence against anyone. Don’t touch anyone, even one hair.”
Fear of violence appeared to have concerned others as well, with the US embassy urging its citizens to “limit their movements” because of “the potential for civil unrest”.
Though most voters entered, cast ballots and left without any problem, many encountered difficulties.
Voters whose names weren’t on the list were told to call an NEC hotline for support. One woman the Post saw in this situation in Prey Veng was unable to get through after repeated efforts.
Another woman, who arrived to find someone else had voted using her name, was still allowed to cast a ballot.
In Peamro district’s Prek Khsay Khor commune, CNRP supporter Mok Meng was in a heated discussion with voting officials. “I did not see my name and officials have not helped me,” she said, adding she had checked her details before the election.
But Snoun Channy, a voting inspector for the CPP, said Meng had been careless. “It’s her fault. If she had checked, her name would be there and she could vote.”
Despite widespread claims of illegal Vietnamese voters, Prey Veng, too, saw large gains for the CNRP, with the opposition jumping from 3 to 6 of the province’s 11 seats.
In Battambang, Cheng Sim, 75, said she was bereft after being unable to cast a ballot after four straight elections in which she had successfully voted. “I really want to vote for the peace and happiness of my country,” she said.
Sim said she had never heard of the identification certificate for election (ICE) form that is issued by commune officials and allows those without identification to cast their vote.
Up to 100,000 ICEs are estimated to have been issued in Battambang, raising fears that “ghost-voters” could have assumed the identities of others.
Against the predictions of Interior Minister and CPP lawmaker Sar Kheng, who yesterday morning insisted “the CPP will not lose, and we will maintain at least six seats”, the opposition managed to make a slight inroad, winning three of eight seats.
In Kampong Cham, the most populous province, with 18 seats up for grabs, the opposition jumped from six seats to 10, while the royalists saw their single seat here erased.
Those outcomes dovetailed neatly with predictions proffered by CNRP deputy Kem Sokha, who yesterday told reporters that it was impossible the CPP would retain its 11 seats.
“If they get 11 seats, it’s because they’re cheating,” he said.
Ultimately, it appeared the opposition’s rallying cry of b’do, or change, hit home for many.
“The reason that I came to vote is that I just want to change the leaders,” Sok Dara, 29, said, noting that the sentiment was widely shared by his friends and co-workers.
“It’s been 30 years already, and we’re still not developed.”
REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG, CHEANG SOKHA, MEAS SOKCHEA, SEN DAVID, CHHAY CHANNYDA, KIM SAROM, BUTH REAKSMEY KONGKEA, SEAN TEEHAN, AMELIA WOODSIDE AND ABBY SEIFF IN PHNOM PENH; MAY TITTHARA AND STUART WHITE IN KAMPONG CHAM; MOM KUNTHEAR AND SHANE WORRELL IN PREY VENG; PHAK SEANGLY AND KEVIN PONNIAH IN BATTAMBANG