An Election Watchdog in Cambodia

An Election Watchdog in Cambodia

The results of Cambodia’s 2013 national election surprised the country’s ruling party and showed the rising dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has had an iron grip on power for the last 28 years. The opposition won 45% of the seats in the lower house of parliament, which, though not a majority, will make it more difficult for the prime minister to impose his will unilaterally. A PiA fellow working for an election watchdog NGO in Phnom Penh gives an inside look into Cambodia’s most important election in two decades.

When I moved to Phnom Penh, Cambodia for my second PiA fellowship, I was well aware that the country was getting ready for a major national election and that I would be there for it. But I didn’t realize that it would be the most significant election since Cambodia's first United Nations’ administered polls in 1993, and that by working at the National Democratic Institute (NDI), one of the world's preeminent NGOs working in democracy and governance, I would literally be on the frontlines of Cambodian history. Needless to say, the past several months in Cambodia have been a political roller coaster.

To say Cambodia has had a tumultuous history and a rocky path to democracy would be an extraordinary understatement, like comparing Angkor Wat to your nephew's Lego castle. Pol Pot’s ultra-Marxist Khmer Rouge regime wiped out one fourth of the country’s population in the four short years between 1975 and 1979. For the next decade, Cambodia oscillated between Vietnamese occupation and brutal civil war. The United Nations finally came in to enforce a ceasefire and establish the country’s first-ever democratic election in May 1993. The royalist party won and then later entered a coalition with the other participating parties, including the Cambodian People's Party (CPP), led by a former Khmer Rouge soldier and defector by the name of Hun Sen. However, conflict didn’t end with the election. Hun Sen seized power through a bloody coup d’etat in 1997. His Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has held power ever since through a combination of intimidation, electoral manipulation, and brute force.

The 2013 election was expected to be more of the same, another landslide win for Hun Sen’s ruling party. The CPP handily won the last two national elections largely because (with or without manipulation) many Cambodians appreciate that Hun Sen’s government has overseen the country’s longest period of relative peace, stability, and economic growth in decades. Hun Sen is a polarizing figure and his government is responsible for extensive human rights abuses, from massive land grabs to imprisoning political opponents. But many Cambodians have been conditioned to fear the alternative. Playing on that anxiety, in the run up to this election Hun Sen and other prominent CPP politicians threatened that if they were to lose, the country would fall back into civil war, or worse, a return to the Khmer Rouge.

Amidst these challenges, NDI’s goal was to make the election process more transparent and inclusive. We started with the official voters list. In prior Cambodian elections, most electoral fraud occurred long before the actual Election Day, most notably through major manipulation of the National Election Commission (NEC) issued voter list. The first election-based project I worked on with NDI was an extensive sample-based, statistical audit of the voter list. The audit showed that 10% of citizens who thought they were registered were in fact not on the list, and nearly 20% of the existing names on the voter list were invalid. In addition, the list was massively bloated, placing the number of registered voters at 102% of the eligible population. Not surprisingly, the NEC, which is entirely staffed and appointed by the ruling CPP party, denied the findings and made no effort to improve the quality of the voter list. However, the audit provided civil society with a base to start questioning the validity of the upcoming elections.  

This past April, a team of my NDI colleagues and I began organizing town hall, US-style candidate debates. It was extraordinarily difficult to get all the disparate parties and the NEC to agree on a format, especially since the CPP had little interest in allowing their candidates to be publicly challenged by the opposition. Despite the difficulties, we managed to pull through with six provincial debates (each of which had an audience of over 1,000 people) and one televised national debate in Phnom Penh. As a PiA fellow, having the opportunity to work directly on a project of this magnitude was a phenomenal experience. Admittedly, all did not go smoothly.  Many of the small parties had grossly unprepared candidates, who were only marginally versed in their own party's platforms. There were declarations to put Vietnamese in internment camps, promises to bring in 14 American billionaires to solve all of Cambodia's problems, and assurances of abolishing the country's nonexistent death penalty. And, of course, both main parties guaranteed that there would be chaos and anarchy if the other won. In one event, there were more military police than audience members. However, these debates were some of the only opportunities for direct, public dialogue between the parties and voters. They were profoundly unique experiences for everyone attending, from ordinary citizens to party leaders. For me personally, working directly with both seasoned politicians and new candidates alike in training sessions and then watching some of them emerge as highly capable, articulate speakers was inspiring and tremendously rewarding.

Following the debates, we shifted gears into election observation. NDI worked with Transparency International Cambodia to conduct a sample-based observation of the election that would provide an alternative vote projection to the official (and clearly biased) one that would be presented by the NEC and the CPP. On Election Day, I had the opportunity to work with the team, helping manage surveys as they came into our data center. The entire day was wrought with issues and conflicts.  As predicted by our audit of the voter list, thousands of Cambodians were turned away at the polls because their names had been deleted or improperly duplicated, leaving them disenfranchised and frustrated. At 93% of the polls, people were allowed to vote with suspect temporary IDs issued by the government in the few weeks prior to the vote. And heated xenophobic rhetoric, which had tainted the campaign season, led to mobs forcefully keeping some ethnic Vietnamese-Cambodians from voting, one of which lead to a riot in southern Phnom Penh.

Yet, despite the myriad issues (including the blatant voter list manipulation by the NEC, the ruling party's complete control over the local media, and the threats of war), the two main opposition parties, which united to become the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), made remarkable gains. Although Prime Minister Hun Sen had demanded a landslide victory, his party actually lost 22 seats to the opposition. Though the CPP maintains a majority at 68 seats to the opposition’s 55 seats, it no longer holds the two-thirds majority needed to amend the Constitution. Thus, the election represents the biggest electoral setback for the ruling party in 20 years. 

Working with NDI these past 13 months has been eye-opening. It has been amazing to see how a program staff of just 15 can do so much to hold a government accountable and demand transparency. It has been nearly three months and the election results remain highly contested. There are still mass protests by the opposition in Phnom Penh. Most of the population is terrified of the potential for violence and just want some sort of political stability. Right now, it's impossible to tell what the future holds for Cambodia, but the younger generation makes me hopeful. A highly engaged youth contingency that has no real memory of the Khmer Rouge has emerged, and they are demanding change, no matter what it takes. 

As for me, when my PiA fellowship has ended, I accepted an offer to work fulltime for NDI. I want to see how the country and its fledgling democracy will evolve now that Cambodians, young and old, are asserting their democratic rights.

 By Hilary Ford (PiA Thailand ’11 and Cambodia ’12)

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