Nearly a year after the contested 2013 national election, a majority of Cambodians believed the Kingdom’s democracy was headed in the “wrong direction”, according to a report released on Wednesday.
“Democracy in Cambodia”, The Asia Foundation’s third national public opinion poll on democracy, says that 59 per cent of Cambodians thought that the country was taking a turn for the worse in the wake of the election and amid the opposition’s ongoing boycott of the National Assembly due to claims of voter fraud.
The chief reason for the pessimism – and the biggest single problem facing Cambodia, according to those surveyed – was corruption, the accompanying report says.
Despite recent significant economic growth and poverty reduction in the country, the findings mark a significant downward shift in national mood since the foundation’s last poll in 2003.
“The political sentiment that took place on July 22, when the CPP and the CNRP reached a compromise, definitely changed the tempo of the calls for change in the country,” said Asia Foundation’s country representative Silas Everett.
“There were confirmations that this kind of change was pretty much what people wanted.”
Eighty-six per cent of the 1,000 respondents said they voted in the last election, where the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) experienced its first decline in support in 20 years.
Fifty-eight per cent also believe that their votes could make some or a big difference in how the country is run, though an even higher percentage (60 per cent) expressed what the report termed a “paternalistic” view of their government.
“There have been more people engaging in voting compared to past elections, and the quality of the participation has also increased from what we’ve seen, because people think their comments and ideas are given more weight,” said Koul Panha, executive director of independent election monitor Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL).
But although voter engagement was particularly high among Cambodians, the majority of respondents still think that the 2013 elections were “not free and fair”.
Fifty-seven per cent said the election was unfair, while 31 per cent said otherwise and 12 per cent were unsure.
These findings demonstrate a substantial reversal in public opinion from The Asia Foundation’s survey in 2000, in which only 13 per cent thought the 1998 election was not free and fair.
The major reasons for this view change were the way elections were conducted, and primarily, how names were lost from the election list and instances of electoral fraud, the report concludes.
“Post-election 2013, we were aware that there were some problems taking place, like how the people who are conducting the elections did not have enough experience and how there were not enough resources,” said National Election Committee (NEC) Secretary General Tep Nytha.
Along with independent groups like COMFREL, and the CPP and the CNRP, Nytha said, the NEC has been working to improve Cambodia’s electoral process and ensure its own independence.
The move resonates with the report’s findings on how four out of five Cambodians preferred the NEC to be independent, regardless of cost.
Currently, the two main parties are working on a new version of the NEC draft law, which is set to overhaul Cambodia’s electoral system after accusations of voter fraud surfaced following the last election.
In October, CPP working group chief Bin Chhin and his CNRP counterpart Kuoy Bunroeun said the parties had reached “90 per cent” agreement, though the talks were momentarily snagged when the CPP insisted that NEC members hold only Cambodian citizenship. The CNRP ultimately ceded the point amid a broader political deal brokered by party president Sam Rainsy.
Apart from the upcoming NEC draft law, COMFREL is also currently developing a computerised voting system to avoid past election problems that were largely due to the old pen-and-paper system, like duplicating the names of voters, Panha said.
“We’re going to finish this project by January and present the recommendation to legislature in order to integrate the system in the new election law,” he said.
The report found that there is broad public support for election reform, but 56 per cent of people polled said that before another election is held, the government must “wait until reforms are passed”.
“There’s not going to be a quick fix, because there are long-term reforms required, but the sober part is that we’re in a period where people accept and understand that,” Everett said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY MEAS SOKCHEA AND TAING VIDA