Cambodia’s crucial commune elections: covering the coverage

By: Will Feuer - Posted on: June 5, 2017 | Cambodia

Cambodians took to the polls on Sunday to vote for their local leaders, polls that offer an indicator of what is to come in national elections next year. Southeast Asia Globe selected the stories that capture the key takeaways

Cambodian people search for their names at a polling station during local council elections in Phnom Penh, 04 June 2017.
Cambodian people search for their names at a polling station during local council elections in Phnom Penh, 04 June 2017. Photo: EPA/Mak Remissa

Four years after the 2013 national election ended with disputed results and months of opposition protests that resulted in violence on the streets, Cambodians returned to the polls on Sunday to elect commune-level leaders.

Though official numbers have not been released, a government-aligned news website put out results hours after polls closed saying that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won about 70% of communes – well below the 97% it took home in 2012 but well above the optimistic prediction of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

With near-record voter turnout, it is clear that Cambodians of all political persuasions realise that it’s a crucial time to have their voices heard with only a year until the next national election, in which both the CPP and CNRP are still promising victory.

We picked out five stories from local and international media that offer key takeaways or unique insight into the bellwether elections.

Prime Minister’s home province is now opposition territory

The CNRP declared a decisive victory in Kampong Cham, the home province of Prime Minister Hun Sen, winning 76 out of 109 communes, according to Fresh News, the government-aligned website that broke the unofficial results. The results stood in stark contrast to the 2012 elections, when the two parties that have since united to become the CNRP won only 12 communes.

On top of the swing of political support, Kampong Cham saw a significant increase in voter turnout, hitting an impressive 83.1% when compared to the 2012 turnout of 62%, according to figures from election watchdog Comfrel.

“We do not hate the prime minister, but his lower authorities have many houses, where the poor get poorer and poorer,” said Pon Vann, a longtime CPP supporter. “It’s a system of deforestation and destruction of fisheries.” [Phnom Penh Post]

Independent observers say election marred by ‘some irregularities’

While independent observers applauded the election process as largely peaceful and fair, they have noted a number of issues including unauthorised officials at polling sites, intimidation of election observers and soldiers being trucked in to skew votes.

“Authorities detained 12 of our observers and advised them to thumbprint contracts not to observe the elections. Our observers felt unsafe, so they decided not to do their jobs,” said Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.

Despite such instances, the initial election results appeared to be widely accepted with only scattered complaints as the reformed National Election Committee seeks to build confidence ahead of the national election. [Cambodia Daily]

Soldiers suspected of swinging some results

The military is meant to be neutral, but due to an election loophole allowing them to register at polling stations they are assigned to guard, there are concerns that soldiers were deployed specifically to swing elections in key communes.

Significant imbalances in the gender of registered voters in some, combined with the registration of large numbers of soldiers from out of town, had already raised concerns that appeared to be well-founded on election day.

“I came here by military truck,” said one soldier who voted in rural Ta Siem commune in Siem Reap province. “There were about 40 people [on each truck], [and] there were 18 trucks.”

Similar cases of soldier movements on election day were recorded across the country. [Phnom Penh Post]

Monks take on duty of documenting election day

The Venerable Luon Sovath speaks softly, but the voice of he and other socially minded monks is growing ever louder as they have embraced social media to push for democracy, transparency and accountability.

Luon Sovath reported for duty on election day with nothing but his smartphone, recording the election process, speaking to voters and telling his followers about their obligation to vote and stay engaged.

“The Cambodian People’s Party has many television stations and facilities already, so we are helping people who don’t have anything, who are poor,” the monk said. [New York Times]

Hun Sen comes out of elections claiming confidence

Although it scored only a narrow victory in the popular vote and lost hundreds of communes, Prime Minister Hun Sen said the ruling party was still primed for victory in the 2018 national election.

“It is already clear that the ruling party will remain a majority party in the National Assembly and continue to lead the government ahead,” Hun Sen wrote in a message on his popular Facebook page on Monday.

However, some believe the CNRP’s performance is a sign of growing momentum that will continue into the national election. “Given that the 2018 election is the most important election, I think the opposition will be stronger and that makes the outcome of the next election pretty unpredictable,” said political analyst Ou Virak. [Reuters]