The Cambodian Election

by Damaso G. Magbual, Member, NAMFREL National Council
Chairperson, Asian network for Free Elections (ANFREL)

from NAMFREL Election Monitor Vol.3, No.3
Mr. Magbual in Myanmar
... ANFREL deployed a team of eight experts from six Asian countries headed by this writer, to observe the Parliamentary Elections in Cambodia on July 28, 2013. Our findings were presented to a group of diplomats from the European Union (15 embassies represented) in Bangkok, Thailand, hosted by the Swiss Embassy.

Among the most positive development was the significant decrease in electoral violence compared to past elections. Several interlocutors credited the active participation of Cambodia’s youth for much of the more peaceful situation. As one said, “Unlike their elders, they reject violence as a means of resolving conflicts in the electoral process”. It was estimated that the youth represented more than 35% of the registered voters.
Political Situation

There was a relatively widespread consensus that the country has slid backwards democratically for the past ten years. It has come under a unified control of the ruling party (CPP). Cambodia is now a de facto one-party  system that can be credited to the older generation of party leaders having grown up with a Communist/Maoist mindset. The party’s control over all branches of government and democratic institutions has an obvious and undeniably harmful effect on the country’s elections.

Among the most compromised institutions, the judicial system has been almost completely undermined and exists primarily as a venue where political connections or financial resources are the sole determinants of the courts’ decisions. The courts have been used as a weapon of repression against opposition party leaders, independent voices in the media, amongst many others. Consequently, election stakeholders have no confidence or expectation that the courts can play their proper role in electoral dispute resolution.

The National Election Committee (NEC)

The NEC has long been a highly politicized body. It is far from exhibiting the independence, impartiality and neutrality expected of an election body. Recommendations by domestic as well as international observers on the recruitment, selection and appointment of NEC Commissioners after each electoral exercise since1998 have been ignored by the legislature and calls for greater autonomy and professionalism from the NEC have similarly fallen on deaf ears.

Basic Issues Raised

Problems with the voters’ list were the most discussed, studied, and criticized aspect of the NEC’s preparation. The inaccuracies of the voters’ list created a number of harmful effects, namely, direct disenfranchisement of voters who registered but their names were not in the list; the opportunity for fraud given the incorrect and duplicate names that were found in the list; serious harm on the public’s confidence on the legitimacy of the election.

The NEC printed over 2.6 million or 27% excess ballots, a number far exceeding accepted norms and standards in established democracies. No actual justification was given except that the NEC “print ballots in books of 50s and to provide adequate excess ballots to every polling station”. Given that the NEC officials are not trusted and the voters’ list have excess names, the high number of extra ballots, contributed to an erosion of public trust in the election.

The NEC introduced a notorious invention called “Identification Card for the Election” (ICE). ICEs were issued by the commune leaders to voters with no identification cards to enable them to vote. The issuance of so many ICE cards created a fear of significant fraud since the commune leaders who issued them were mostly partisans of the ruling party.

This election saw the issue of ethnic Vietnamese voters, citizens and non-citizens, become a highly controversial topic. Accusations ran rampant that on election day, groups of Vietnamese were bussed in to vote for the ruling party.


The media in Cambodia tilts heavily towards the ruling party. All the television stations are government owned, the vast majority of radio stations are government owned and the leading Khmer language daily is owned by one sympathetic to the ruling party. A revealing example of media bias was the coverage surrounding opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s return to the country from exile. It was an event wherein thousands of people took to the streets but there was no coverage on TV or in the newspapers.

Most journalists work in an environment of explicit censorship. The Ministry of Information’s regulations remain a constant threat of being sued and tried in a biased court system.

Looking Ahead

Local analysts shared the opinion, before and after the election, that change is forthcoming. The election results where the ruling party lost 22 seats, reinforces the same message. There are a number of social and economic factors that will hasten change.
1. The growing inequality in the distribution of wealth has become more pronounced under the ruling party. It is said that more than half of the population live on less than two dollars a day.
2. The increasing militancy of the youth as expressed in the last election would be a wake-up call to the ruling party that their clamour for change can no longer be ignored.
3. The injustices perpetrated by the ruling elite and condoned by the courts cannot last forever. The issue of land grabs is perhaps the most glaring example though there are many others like the adjudication and resolution of electoral disputes.
4. The issue of ethnic Vietnamese (now Cambodian citizens) as well as the Vietnamese migrant workers whom the Cambodians see as taking away jobs and business opportunities from them, is a very sensitive one that feeds on the emotions of the ethnic Khmers particularly amongst the youth. The general public perceive the government as tolerating their presence and even favouring them.