Censors and intimidation surround Cambodians as election voting opens

Censors and intimidation surround Cambodians as election voting opens

Cambodia election day voting booths
In Phnom Penh, the mood was subdued with only small queues of people emerging in the early hours of voting. (Photo: Jack Board)

PHNOM PENH: Polls opened throughout Cambodia on Sunday morning (Jul 29) as the nation contended with its most one-sided election in recent history.

The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CCP) is expected to win the vast majority of seats following the systematic dismantling of its only genuine challenger, the national opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

READ: Blue and white wave hits Cambodia as Hun Sen leads final election rally

A climate of intimidation has prevailed throughout many Cambodian communities even long before the campaigning period of two weeks, with many reports of authorities pressuring people to cast their vote for the government. 

In Phnom Penh, the mood was subdued with only small queues of people emerging in the early hours of voting. Some told Channel NewsAsia it was their national duty to participate.

Cambodia election day
Cambodians queue up to vote in Phnom Penh on Jul 29, 2018. (Photo: Jack Board)

“We know this is our duty. We should do it. The atmosphere is good because it is the same as previous elections,” said civil servant Bou Chankolroath, 27.

“I feel happy and I want to vote and express myself about which party I love. Voting is our duty. It’s just early morning so maybe more people will come later,” said Lay Sok Lim, 31.

Others like Ny, a tuk-tuk driver observed from a distance but said he would not vote.

“I feel unhappy because there is only one party. It is not free and fair. No-one can compete and maybe the other parties cannot win even a single seat,” he said.

Independent news sites have been blocked by censors for the 48 hours leading up to the vote, preventing locals from accessing anything other than pro-government media channels.

Cambodia CPP rally 2
A supporter at the CPP rally on Friday (Jul 27) at Phnom Penh. (Photo: Jack Board) 

Opposition figures have run a "clean finger campaign" calling for a boycott of the polls. Several people have been arrested and others fined for doing so.

The CPP has denied there will be any repercussions for anyone choosing to abstain but says campaigning for a boycott is against the law. 

The National Election Committee - under the control of the government - says its expects 60 per cent of registered voters to participate, down from 68.5 per cent in 2013.

READ: Cambodia's Hun Sen has an important election backer: China

Many workers have been given three days off work in order to go back to their home provinces to vote. Some have reported that managers have threatened to dock their pay if they return without an ink stained finger, indicating a vote.

Cambodia elections ink stained finger
A voter proudly displaying his inked finger after voting in the Cambodian elections. Those who have it are being given free drinks, cafe discounts and other benefits from businesses. (Photo: Jack Board)

Cambodia elections ink stained finger
Cambodians at the polls had their fingers stained with ink to indicate that they had voted. (Photo: Jack Board)

"I have not had any direct pressure but I feel worried and wonder why they offer three days off," said Sophal, a hotel worker in Phnom Penh. 

"If I don't go to vote, I am afraid of having problems and being fired.

"I will go to dip my finger with the ink but I won't vote for anyone at all because there is no party I support.”

The opposition as recently as 12 months ago had legitimate hopes of an electoral breakthrough. 

Kem Sokha
Kem Sokha seen campaigning for the CNRP in 2017. (Photo: Jack Board)

The CNRP’s leader Kem Sokha, last year at the helm of a momentum-building commune election campaign, is now languishing in prison, detained over charges of treason and yet to be granted a trial.

The United States has since introduced sanctions that target the CPP’s inner circle for anti-democratic activities.

The nation has been left to vote in a contest with few real choices.

There are 20 parties officially on the roster but most of them are small, newly formed and largely unknown among the electorate.

When results start to be announced later in the evening, it is expected that all but a handful of the 125 seats in the National Assembly will fall to the CPP, which has been in power since 1985 under Prime Minister Hun Sen.

Hun Sen Cambodia rally
Prime Minister Hun Sen at the CPP rally on Friday (Jul 27). (Photo: Jack Board) 

He led a massive rally on Friday in Phnom Penh after a speech that focused on war, peace and prosperity.

“We stood up and turned blood and tears into development,” he said. “No peace, no development. Voting for the CPP will guarantee the peace?

“If we didn't eliminate them (the CNRP) with an iron fist, maybe by now Cambodia would be in a situation of war.”

Polling will close at 3pm local time.

Source: CNA/ad/(gs)