The hard choice facing Cambodia’s opposition voters
Interviews conducted by Southeast Asia Globe across three provinces revealed a growing climate of fear driven by local CPP officials allegedly abusing their power to deprive suspected opposition supporters of essential government services. Those who have grown frustrated with 30 years of CPP rule now find themselves forced to choose between being complicit in an election they see as illegitimate and facing the consequences a boycott could bring down on their families.
The Butcher claimed that his local commune officials had threatened to withhold their services as essential notaries and mediators to citizens not bearing the telltale ink on their index finger following this month’s commune elections.
“If you’re not going to vote, they say, you’re not a legitimate citizen,” he said. “So they mark down your name and they don’t help you with papers or approval on anything.”
Commune councils are responsible for ensuring their constituents have access to essential health and social services, and oversee the bureaucracy of day-to-day life. Commune chiefs, deputies and clerks serve as mediators in business and family life, overseeing marriages and divorces. Hun Sen’s Cambodia author Sebastian Strangio said that the ruling party had long used its stranglehold on local government to pressure Cambodian citizens.
“In the past, the CPP has used its local organisations and working groups to forcibly enroll people in the CPP, as in the ’93 and ’98 elections,” he said. “I presume the CPP will deploy the many local government and party offices to encourage people to come out and vote.”
“It’s bad, because we have been discussing not going to vote,” he said. “But we also have a backup plan: we go and scratch the papers [leaving the ballot blank or invalid]. But I’m afraid they’re going to count that as a ruling-party vote. I feel very hopeless. I don’t know what to do.”
With the CNRP leadership in prison or scattered across the globe, and the nation’s military and police dominated by the ruling party, it seems unlikely that a CPP win would be greeted by the same widespread street protests that followed the controversial 2013 result. Strangio said that for many Cambodians, ways of expressing dissatisfaction with the CPP’s actions were running thin.
“What we are more likely to see than an uprising in the street is this sort of passive resistance where people drag their feet,” he said. “People have been doing this for years – this isn’t a new thing. When you talk to people in villages, they will express critical views of the CPP and the authorities and a great deal of skepticism about their pretensions and claims. Whether that actually affects the CPP’s grip on power in this election remains unclear. I do think a boycott is a potentially embarrassing thing for the CPP if it gathers momentum and a large portion of the public buy into it.”
For the Barber, it’s not enough. Staring out across the dusty roads of Sen Sok, he describes a future that feels all too familiar to those who have grown up under the thumb of a one-party state.
“It’s just a one-man show – you’ll win anyway, and so no one is going to criticise you,” he said. “You don’t know what flaws you have. If there were a strong opposition party like before, there would be someone to criticise you and your policies and have some impact on decision-making in parliament, but now you’re alone – you don’t know what you lack or how you could make it better. You just live in your own world. Everything else, you’ve shut down.”
Read more details at Southeast Asia Globe…