PHNOM PENH: Cambodia’s opposition party made strong gains but failed to deliver on its own high expectations for the country’s commune elections on Sunday (Jun 5).
Unofficial preliminary results suggested that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won about 70 per cent of the local districts being contested, and also triumphed in the popular vote by 51 to 46 per cent.
Cambodian National Rescue Party leader Kem Sokha had set an ambitious target of taking control of 60 per cent of the 1,646 communes as he toured breathlessly throughout the country during the two-week campaign period before the vote.
That number ended up proving to be unattainable as the ruling party of more than three decades consolidated control. Prime Minister Hun Sen had warned about the outbreak of war should the CPP lose.
The CNRP has eyes focused on 2018, with Sokha telling Channel NewsAsia that the commune elections were akin to voters putting down a deposit for next year. The opposition sharply increased the number of communes it now governs, from a lowly 40 in 2012, equivalent to about less than 3 per cent. With substantial gains at the commune level this time round, the opposition may have laid the grass root foundations for a stronger showing at the national level.
“Frankly, people are content,” said Monovithya Kem, CNRP’s deputy director-general of public affairs, adding that the party appeared to have outperformed its popular vote count from the 2013 general election, where it was narrowly defeated.
"Thousands of our people are now in government jobs. Bottom line, we won the battles that can help us win the war. We just need to keep up the momentum,” she said, reaffirming that the CNRP is confident of taking 60 per cent of the vote in the general election.
The opposition performed well in the areas it was expected to, notably in Phnom Penh, Siem Reap and Kampong Cham. Battambang represented big gains for the CNRP after the province was swept by the CPP in 2012. However, the ruling party held firm in its areas of key strength – rural districts – and looked to seize on their numerical victory, despite losing a significant number of communes.
Hun Sen took to Facebook to suggest that the unofficial winning margin would also likely be reflected in next year’s vote. He also expressed confidence that the CPP would maintain its majority in the parliament.
“Last night, some people came out and claimed that the CPP lost in the poll,” he wrote. “These are really the kinds of people who only know trees and not the entire forest.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said the ruling party now had "strong momentum" and welcomed the peaceful proceedings around the vote.
"Pluralism is deeply rooted in Cambodian society and there continues to be a better culture for a healthy democracy," he said.
Voter turnout was high on Sunday, a factor that some observers argued might have helped the opposition. The 6.74 million voters was the highest registered for an election in Cambodia. A statement by the National Election Commission also put voter turnout at 89.52 per cent, a record high for a commune election.
Fears of voting irregularities were largely dismissed by independent observers including COMFREL (Committee for Free and Fair Elections) and Transparency International Cambodia, despite a few noted minor incidents.
“Today’s communal election was smooth, but there are a few irregularities” said COMFREL president Kol Panha, noting a lack of voting materials in some stations, The National Election Commission said it had received only one official complaint.
The opposition contended that the atmosphere around the vote ensured it was not “free and fair” and would be investigating reports of irregularities in the coming days.