Larry Jagan, Foreign Correspondent
- Last Updated: July 23. 2008 8:49PM UAE
Hun Sen, the Cambodian prime minister, front right, Chea Sim, the president of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, centre, and Heng Samrin, the party’s honorary president, attend an election rally in Phnom Penh. Heng Sinith / AP
PHNOM PENH // Cambodians go to the polls on Sunday to choose their fourth government since the end of a bloody civil war in the early 1990s, but many in this country of 14 million say that voting will have little effect in one of Southeast Asia’s poorest countries.
Although 11 parties have fielded candidates, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, led by Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1983, is expected to win a landslide victory, leading many to complain the country is turning into a one-party state.
Although there has been little of the systematic violence that plagued the previous two elections, Cambodians are becoming increasingly nervous as election day nears.
“People always fear the worst, but there is little evidence that this election will be marred by the violence and vote-rigging of the previous two elections,” said Chhaya Hang, the executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy. “Each successive election since 1993 has been more transparent than the previous one,” he said.
Nevertheless, many Cambodians living in the capital have taken extended holidays and plan to stay at home on polling day.
Sunday marks the fourth election since the United Nations oversaw a peaceful transition in the country in the early 1990s, after the Paris peace agreement was signed between four warring factions, including the Vietnamese-backed government of Hun Sen and the Khmer Rouge, blamed for the deaths of up to two million people during its 1975-1979 rule.
Voters will elect 123 members of the national assembly, the lower house of parliament, with the winner forming a new government that will run the country for the next five years.
There has been only a handful of complaints of electoral abuse, all of which have been dismissed by the electoral body overseeing the polls.
“So far, there is no real evidence of election violence or fraud,” said Im Soudsey, chairman of the National Electoral Commission.
“But all cases referred to the commission will be thoroughly investigated.”
In the worst incident, Khim Sambo, an opposition journalist, and his 21-year-old son were shot dead by unidentified assailants outside their home in Phnom Penh more than a week ago. Police are still investigating the incident and have yet to release their findings.
“This election is proving to be the most peaceful since Cambodia’s first real democratic elections 15 years ago,” said Ok Serei, a Cambodian political analyst. “The electoral process is maturing with every election.”
The opposition, though, still believes the elections will be rigged.
“Even though there is less violence, [fewer] deaths, the ruling party is using more subtle means to achieve the same results,” said Sam Rainsy, the main opposition leader, whose party bears his name.
He said the government was using intimidation tactics and bribes to entice voters to support the governing party.
“Village chiefs remain a problem and frequently violate the laws,” said Chhaya Hang of the Khmer Institute of Democracy. “But people know the importance of the elections and understand the rules and regulations.”
Kem Sohka, the head of the other main opposition party – the newly formed Khmer Human Rights Party – was even more blunt, accusing the ruling Cambodian People’s Party of harassment, intimidation and vote buying. “They cannot win the election except by cheating,” he said. “And if they lose the election they wouldn’t hand over power – they would hang on to it, just like in Zimbabwe.”
Most of the recent election rallies have had the air of a carnival and, apart from the first day of campaigning, few people have come out to hear what the candidates and the party representatives have had to say.
“Why should I care? We know who’s going to win,” said Thy Thi Kaeng, a Chinese-Cambodian taxi driver. “I voted Funcinpec [the royalist party] the first time, then they joined the government, so I voted Sam Rainsy after that – but this time there is no point – it’s a wasted vote.”
Most diplomats in Cambodia believe that many people will either abstain from voting this time round, or choose the ruling party rather than cause trouble.
“There is certainly a growing apathy among voters,” said Aamir Arain, a project manager for the UN Strengthening Democracy and Electoral Procedures programme. Mr Arain said there were a number of reasons for this: “Firstly, they are more consumed by economic issues. Secondly, they have seen the same party in power since 1993. This has led many voters to believe that there is no alternative, and they have become increasingly disinterested in politics as a result.”
The election commission, however, is confident of a strong turnout at the polls. “I expect more than 70 per cent of the registered voters to cast their ballots at next week’s polls,” said Im Soudsey, the elections body chairman.
Hang Puthea, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, warned that voter apathy could cause even more problems for the country in the future.
“If there is no opposition party, the party in power can do whatever they want,” he said.
“We’re concerned that the balance of power will be lost, and we worry that the CPP will control every level of administration from the top government posts down to the village,” said Koul Panha, the executive director of Comfrel, another election monitor.
Even though Hun Sen appears to be on track for an easy victory in next week’s elections, the real test will come after the vote.
With the country’s poor hit hard by soaring food and fuel prices, dissatisfaction is growing. About 35 per cent of Cambodia’s 14 million people live on less than 50 US cents (Dh1.8) a day, and economists have said corruption is endemic. The government has acknowledged inflation is currently running at about 17 per cent, but international financial analysts said it could be as high as 25 per cent, and that – they said – is likely to fuel real demand for change.