By Andrew Rintoul
As the sun rose over Boeung Tompun in Phnom Penh on a Saturday morning, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) supporters began arriving in droves. This was the first day of the campaign period, with the elections still several weeks away. Tuk-tuks, moto-bikes, and vehicles were all emblazoned with CNRP motifs while matching hats, shirts and flags were passed around the 10,000 supporters present. Through the lens of a DSLR, I observed supporters celebrating and dancing, honking their horns loudly as smiling spectators waived and asked for party hats to be thrown their way. I listened to the cheers and calls for change in Khmer and popular Cambodian pop songs dubbed over with CNRP-supporting lyrics. I heard a recorded speech of Sam Rainsy, former CNRP leader and now exiled man due to spurious criminal charges pressed against him in Cambodia, through a loud-speaker hitched to the top of a Jeep.
The mood was festive, the people were excited and passionate under the 40-degree sun, and the diverse amalgam of security personnel and military police under the auspices of the CPP did nothing but stand idly by as songs were sung late into the evening.
It has been nearly one month since the country took to the polls for the first time since 2013. The ruling party, eventually settling on the current name, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), has held power in the country since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979. For over three decades, Prime Minister Hun Sen has sat at the head of this regime, carefully crafting his image as a pseudo-deity and a generous and supreme leader. His heavy-handed policies and powerful military arm and security forces have been instrumental in maintaining this lustre and preserving the power of his party.
Four years ago, this armour revealed an unexpected crack as the general elections witnessed an extremely close race between the CPP and what has come to be the main opposition, the CNRP. Following results depicting a slight victory for the CPP, CNRP members and outside observers demanded accountability and argued election-rigging. Yet, in what appears to be familiar Hun Sen-style, the storm eventually blew over and the CNRP, which had boycotted the National Assembly for a year, finally came back into the fold and returned as the opposition.
It is this tumultuous political climate that provided the backdrop for the lead-up to the commune elections of June 4th. In the past four years, the voices of opposition supporters and any calls for change disruptive to the status quo have faced a string of new repressive legislation designed specifically for suppressing dissent. Under the guise of vague language such as public order, national security, incitement, colour revolutions, and confusion, new laws have created an arsenal of inaccessible rules giving authorities the capacity to manipulate and arbitrarily apply them to their liking. Human rights defenders are increasingly targeted and vulnerable, as are the organizations which set out to defend them.
The streets seemed eerily quiet on the morning of June 4th. When I arrived at the office, citizens across the country had already been voting for thirty minutes. I quickly took a seat at my desk alongside several others to assist in running the organization’s live-stream of the event as reports and photos from monitors in the field began flooding in. In the afternoon, I accompanied a senior lawyer to a polling station and observed the last of the voters trickling in, followed by a closed-door counting of the ballots. Moments before the counting began, voters had been ushered out of the premises by heavily-armed security personnel who stood guard at the gates until the ballots were fully counted and relocated in transport vehicles.
In the weeks following the elections, the atmosphere in the capital has taken on a much different tone. The energy of the pre-election period has faded, likely to come back ten-fold in the national elections next year. According to the official results released last week, the ruling party maintained its grip on power by a large margin, in line with the expected result. Though not victorious, the opposition party made massive gains from the last commune elections, moving from winning only 40 communes in 2012 (combining the wins of the two parties who merged the following year to become the CNRP) to winning 489 out of the 1646 communes this year. Despite its apparently poor performance in the 2012 commune elections, the CNRP still took home 44.46% of the popular vote in the 2013 general elections to the CPP’s 48.83% of the vote; with twelve times more communes won this year, a continuation of the trend could mean a strong victory by the opposition in 2018.
It remains to be seen exactly what the ruling party has in store for the country in the lead-up to next year’s general elections. Certainly, much of this is dependent upon the actions and movements of civil society and the opposition party in the months to come. A glimpse into what may be in store occurred last week as Prime Minister Hun Sen called upon the Interior Ministry to investigate the legality and neutrality of an NGO collective after they reported several concerns over the recent elections. Amidst the uncertainty of the immediate future lies an inevitable truth; repressive legislation and targeted crackdowns will persist, but as they do, they will be met with a resilient and robust civil society capable of redirecting forces of repression into winds of change.