PHNOM PENH, Cambodia — The 57-year old farmer in a rural northern Cambodian province has voted in every election since the U.N.-led effort to bring democracy to this country a quarter century ago.
This time, he’s staying home.
“In this election, my vote is useless,” said Khorngson Phumpihean, in an interview from Ratanakiri province, which borders Laos and Vietnam. “Everything in this election is unjust.”
Cambodians on Sunday were offered the opportunity to vote for their next government, but many have chosen not to and others have spoiled their ballots to protest what has widely been decried as a sham election engineered to extend the run of Prime Minister Hun Sen, whose tenure of more than three decades makes him one of the world’s longest-serving rulers.
“There’s only one strong competitor, who has already won,” said Dim Ratha, a 30-year old motorcycle taxi driver, speaking hours after polls opened in an area on the outskirts of Cambodia’s capital Phnom Penh, where many garment workers live. “‘The party we want is not on the list.”
A friend of his standing close by gingerly offered his index finger and said, “Look, it is clean,” a reference to the ink used to stain voters’ fingers after they’ve cast their ballot. He declined to be named for fear of reprisal by the government.
Others forfeited their votes by marking their ballots with a giant X, crossing out all of the 20 parties listed and or writing that the election is unjust or a sham at the top of the paper, according to photos posted on Facebook.
They were among those acting in defiance of Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), whose blue party banners and billboards line Phnom Penh’s streets in one of many indications of its dominance in this Southeast Asian country.
Cambodia’s history has been shaped by war, genocide and later on, an unprecedented effort by the United Nations and Western donors to bring multiparty democracy the country.
But elections have done little to bring about the changes that many want, analysts say, and Sunday’s vote will only serve to reinforce that reality. Last November, a Cambodian court dissolved the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party — which almost unseated Hun Sen’s CPP in 2013 — and locked its leader, Kem Sokha, in a remote jail on treason charges. The government has muzzled independent press and on the eve of elections, blocked 17 websites, including the U.S.-funded Voice of American and Radio Free Asia. Meanwhile, thousands of Cambodians have been invited to WhatsApp groups spreading misinformation and regime-friendly propaganda.
The National Election Commission, which is not independent, has touted the presence of 19 other political parties contesting the election alongside Hun Sen, but none are significant enough to disrupt what will likely be the consolidation of power around the CPP. International monitors have been deployed to observe the election, but none are from credible organizations. A coalition of 23 internationally-recognized election observers, including the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), said the monitors in Cambodia “show neither the autonomy nor the skills to conduct an independent, reliable assessment of the elections.”
“Elections have a history of cementing authoritarian rule in Cambodia,” said Lee Morgenbesser, a lecturer at Griffith University in Australia who studies Cambodia politics. Sunday’s elections, he addd, “are far less about the hope of democracy and far more about the reality of authoritarian rule.”
The now-dissolved CNRP has in recent months called for a boycott of the vote, and Hun Sen has pushed back, branding those heeding its calls as “traitors.”
Many, however, have seemed to follow their message. Across Phnom Penh and even in more rural communities, where locals say that officials can more easily track those who vote and who do not, many have chosen to stay home, travel to other areas of the country or busy themselves with work to avoid voting. There were no voters at three polling stations in the capital at 2 p.m. Sunday, an hour before voting was due to close, a contrast to the flurry of activity around this hour in previous elections. Officials and election monitors, who have come almost entirely from organizations friendly to the government, including one run by Hun Sen’s son, were chatting and sitting around, without any voters to serve.
“It is just more red cards for the [election commission] and CPP,” said Mu Sochua, one of the most prominent opposition politicians from the now-dissolved CNRP, in an interview from Seoul. “They know they cannot bring in the crowd.”
Election commission officials, however, said that by 11 a.m., several polling centers across Phnom Penh had at least voter turnouts of at least 35 percent , which they say is higher than in previous elections. By the afternoon, some officials were quoting numbers as high as 59 percent.
“Cambodian people across the country woke up and walked to the polling station with full energy,” said CPP spokesman Sok Eysan, in a statement released after polls closed on Sunday afternoon. The “elections were free and fair and represented the will of the Cambodian people,” he added.
Among those who voted, most said they did so because they believed Hun Sen and the CPP could continue to bring development to the country. Investments, particularly from China, have flooded into Cambodia in recent years, creating satellite cities and high-rise buildings where nothing stood before, and new transportation links such as roads and bridges.
“I am not swayed by any of these boycott campaigns,” said Rath Sineth, a 51-year old vote in Phnom Penh. “I believe it is my duty to elect the leader who can make my life better.”
Reth Bandith, a 26-year old government official in the capital, said that salaries of public servants have increased under Hun Sen, a reason he will continue supporting the government.
Even in former opposition strongholds, several chose to go to the polls, fearing reprisal or pressure from the government. One family of shopkeepers and tailors in the Veng Sreng area, the site of violent anti-government protests following the 2013 elections, said they felt compelled to vote, or risk their livelihoods.
“We know what is going on, but we can’t express it publicly,” said the 37-year old shopkeeper. “We have to keep our opinions to our closest circles to make sure we have peace.”