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Elections Fervour, Fear Cambodia v UK

Voters who do not turn out at elections often reason “It won’t make any difference, which party to vote for or not at all*”. This is not the case in Cambodia where the ruling party’s strategy makes it clear where benefits will go to, or be forfeited by the way a vote is cast. This picture shows the quality of a publicly-funded road
A key test of a healthy democracy? Read on.

Foreword to this blog December 2017

Firstly you will no longer see Opposition CNRP signs anywhere. They were removed once the Cambodia Supreme Court announced the dissolution of the party.  It is very clear that holding on to power matters more than anything else, yet some kind of election again as in 1998, is still wanted by the ruling party (for international legitimacy) and by many in the international community too- intricately entwined with it (to maintain business-as-usual). That is bound to mean even more manipulation of electoral processes, and even more skewed interpretation of standards to determine if elections are free, fair and credible. The criteria set out in this blog is the basis of how such judgments should be made.

This blog is really a technical assessment to illustrate how elections are determined to be free, fair and credible by international standards.  Repeatedly some commentators cast such judgments on the basis of what they see on polling day, when of course any manipulation or deviation from systems of integrity take place months and years before.

This blog is a companion to an earlier one "Part One" and part of a series in the build-up to the July 2018 elections. My most ominous one "Dark clouds gathering", is the one that predicted what was to happen after the close result in 2014, in my view when PM Hun Sen concluded that his party could no longer be sure of winning elections. "Astute as ever, he soon realized that to take on his friends was much harder (and more dangerous) than his enemies, and so he set about “detecting, disrupting, and destroying” all forms of opposition, whether party political, or neutral civil society, anywhere where absolute loyalty could not be assured."  (Quote from this blog.)

I have regularly posted observations on my twitter account, reminding followers of some essential factors such as the requirement for security services and public officials to be neutral, factors we gave careful attention to in 1998 that are no longer given even tacit respect.

Original blog as posted.

Part Two  (14 June 2017]

Predicting elections is for the foolhardy as Opinion Pollsters are learning.  I can’t claim to be any better.  Like most people, I did not foresee the UK election shock result with the governing Conservative Party losing its majority. Nor did most of us foresee the 2013 Cambodian election where the Opposition CNRP Party almost wrestled power.

So maybe I should hold back on commenting?  But then, there is much to be said [that sadly many Cambodians daren’t say] and important lessons learned in the quest for free and fair elections.

Democracies everywhere like Cambodia have much to learn from the UK. The most important lesson is to accept the people’s verdict, and to hand over or share power if need be.

The results

Basically in both Cambodia and the UK, the respective ruling parties “won” but with narrow leads in both cases.  In neither case were narrow wins expected: Cambodia because of aforethought and design; the UK by simple virtue of conventional wisdom now discredited. 

In Cambodia the result (until official figures on 25 June) are 85.7% turnout, with 51% to the ruling CPP party and 46% to the main Opposition CNRP.  The UK turnout was 68.7% with the ruling Conservatives taking 42.4% and main Opposition Labour Party 40%.

So as postulated in Part 1 (below) both ruling parties came out on top - no surprise in Cambodia but a shock in the UK where the Conservatives were expected to romp home with a large majority. Actually they lost their working majority in the UK Parliament and need support of another party to govern.

Fervour: for fervour the Cambodia electorate easily beat the UK with 85.7% turnout for local elections, whereas the UK’s reported “high” national turnout mustered a mere 68.7%.  (The actual turnout for UK local elections was 36% last month, May.)

Despite Cambodia’s greater fervour, is there any doubt which of the two, UK or Cambodia, is the healthier democracy?

My analysis suggests that it is the UK with it retaining my Gold Medal award, but with perhaps not quite a full gleaming shine.

Cambodia is still far from healthy, not a lot better – worse in some respects – than my first election in 1998. I have witnessed every one since.  The 2017 election falls short of a Bronze model, although it could yet attain that by the time everything settles down. For now though it is still in the plastic age or stage!   

My assessment and award will change significantly if real power in all 482 ( or so) communes won by the CNRP is amicably handed over by CPP and/or if in most of the 1,646 newly-elected Commune Councils we see a return to the original idea (and the Law) for them of sharing power locally, working collectively as a Council, and not as single all-powerful chiefdoms. I suspect that both CPP and CNRP parties will stick to the “winner-takes-all” mentality.

If the earlier precedents apply in Cambodia of when CPP shared power with another party FUNCINPEC (from 1993 to 2003) , in reality it will be CPP officials who will retain real power even if they are nominally junior in the leaderships to officials of other parties.

Fear: For fear; lack of fear or disregard of fear, i.e., not being intimidated by pre-election warnings of dire consequences of not voting for “stability” and the ruling party, both the Cambodian and UK electorates deserve great credit.

Voters in the UK are safe in the knowledge that they will not be punished for disloyalty. Indeed, it is the “swing voters”, ones who change allegiances, that win or lose every election in the UK.

In Cambodia punishment is likely, as the example pictured at the top of this blog illustrates, and to be expected if the ruling party keeps to its pre-election threats.  This election’s brave disloyal 46% will probably find not only do they miss out on development, but in everyday essential tasks at their Commune Hall like obtaining identity cards and updated family books. They will find them harder to obtain and to cost more one way or another.

In two important aspects, Cambodia is doing much better in these elections than before but will they last for the national elections next year and beyond?

  1. So far thankfully there has been no bloodshed, unlike in previous elections, but intimidation is actually greater.  The 1998-2003 National Election Committee decided not to have polling station counts in order to make it harder for the ruling party to identify disloyal communities. The current NEC should revert to that practice.
  2.  So far Social Media has been free, but that is threatened by a planned “Cyber Law” that could be enacted before the 2018 national elections.  Similarly the already passed laws restricting NGOs and Trade Unions have not been applied vigorously – that was threatened – but this could change over the next year as the ruling party tightens up further on all forms of opposition.
The question CPP is yet to face up to is “Can CPP win an election truly fairly?”  If 46% voted against it this time despite the intimidating environment, it doesn’t take much to show where true majority loyalties rest.

The “Free, Fair and Credible” accolade and one of my democracy medals will not be earned by Cambodia until the NEC is reformed in both structure and in process. Its leadership should be genuinely independent, not the current bi-partisan compromise, and its secretariat – now part of the main civil service and therefore CPP-orientated – must be taken back to be directly-employed by the NEC itself so that no-one is beholden to government and any political party.  These moves would do much to correct fundamental weaknesses in process, i.e. in decision-making. To correct those, NEC ought to apply strictly the principles of natural justice that I once taught in good governance training to top officials.

The ultimate test of fair elections is not only the peaceful handover of power to the winners but equally that the losers accept the result in good faith[1].

As it happens the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL), a genuine objective monitor of elections, has since reached similar conclusions.  Sadly, the Cambodian ruling party is seeking to undermine such professionalism by actively supporting and participating in a new rival election monitor, ICAPP that simply put lacks credibility.

So Cambodia and the ruling CPP party, you know what you must do to win a medal in the 2018 national elections. Roll on 2018!

* "It won’t make any difference, which party to vote for or not at all”  
(Caption from photograph above) 
Well one more vote would have made an enormous difference in Blyth, Northumberland - please see Footnote 1 below for details and an example of democracy at its best and its most intriguing.

Additional points

Please note that in this blog I have chosen not to comment about the basic systems of democracy and conducting elections in either country although there are strong arguments for reform in both the UK and Cambodia.  Both employ the same system of “first past the post” in each constituency rather than the proportional one based on the share of the overall vote accorded to each party.  In the UK that is because of the tradition of citizens identifying with their local MPs personally once they are in office, so that they do act as their representatives with regular meetings in constituencies and taking up issues for citizens. Losing candidates and parties are free to continue to campaign, to promote themselves as the alternatives next time round. UK MPs can and do break ranks from their party as Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn best exemplifies.  In Cambodia, so far, these are limited at best, inconceivable on most matters, or just denied outright.  The ruling party in Cambodia refused to allow the CNRP to appoint a shadow cabinet

Similarly in practice in Cambodia, the executive acts “Presidentially” rather than collectively through a Cabinet or Council of Ministers. One Prime Minister has just learned that this is not a good idea. The other should take note.

Free, Fair and Credible Elections?
Paper Blank
Negative, no real effort
Superficial moves
Mixed 50: 50
Positive mainly
Time Period
Desired Standard
2017 Award
       Institutions in charge
1. Ensures all eligible citizens registered.
2. Set fair electoral wards. 
3. Oversees fair elections.   
4.  Judges independent appeals. 
5. Security forces neutral, full integrity.
United Kingdom
UK has independent Electoral Commission that sets boundaries. Public service neutral Returning Officers conduct polls. Independent Judiciary at several levels investigates/judges issues ( rarely needed). Universally respected. Civilian police supervise.  Defence forces not involved at all.
Cambodia: Boundaries decided by party-political led Interior Ministry. National Election Committee bi-party headed, ruling party orientated. NEC Appeals & Constitutional Council ruling party orientated. NEC often performs well but faith in processes & final verdicts is not universal. Police and Defence Chiefs overtly affirm loyalty to ruling party.
Non-election period: i.e. after previous election results accepted, before build-up to next one starts.
“Normal Politics”
All parties, media, civil society free to conduct activities and to comment. All Cambodians are able to register to vote freely regardless of where they live or work.
United Kingdom
Parties, media and civil society operate freely. Media biased to ruling party but not exclusively. Ruling party enjoys some benefit from incumbency and from greater largely uncontrolled funds/donations. All eligible voters able to register and to vote even if absent from home.
Pressures applied to restrict all forms of opposition while actively promoting ruling party interests.[2] Local officials unable to distinguish between party and public functions. Prime Minister uses all forums (giving educational certificates; road/bridge opening) to assail opponents without right to reply. Threats hang of defamation/incitement charges. Opposition political leaders hounded[3]. Funding behind ruling party and development projects generally not clear; sources & original sources of wealth attributable to CPP affiliated magnates.
Partisan authorities either encourage or deter potential voters to register, depending on party loyalties, with rules that deter absentees from home.
Run up to elections
Imprecise but once signs become clear.
The pre-election environment must not be contaminated in order to remain conducive to full and equal participation.
United Kingdom
Good as permanent institutions are in-place and elections are routine having taken place for centuries. Ruling party manipulated scene by calling snap election despite professing otherwise.
My view is that the Cambodian ruling party consciously devoted the whole of the period since 2013 elections to advance its case with periodic and increased efforts including threat of war. The Opposition CNRP party despite being close to parity in share of vote and parliamentary representation has been marginalised. State institutions ineffective to counter such biases. Civil Society is targeted when it tries. Current electoral register probably did not reflect all or only eligible voters[4], ultimately affecting final outcome.
Election Campaign
All parties must enjoy an equal playing surface in order to be able to convey their policies and credentials of candidates for electors to have free choice.
United Kingdom
These conditions were all met in the UK, where they are taken for granted. At times, some media known as “tabloid” press give hyperbolic pronouncements but UK electorate is mature enough to make up its own minds.  Equal opportunity to attend/speak at national mass broadcast debates and engage with other parties. Opinion pollsters operate freely.
Once campaign underway, to some extent pressures on opposition parties relaxed. However ruling party authorities still placed arbitrary restrictions on Opposition such as on key note rallies & marches. Public debate was limited, ruling party dominated mass media generally, although equal time was given to election broadcasts. Opinion canvassing/commenting on campaigns was self-censored; strictly controlled, or only permitted within certain tolerated limits (i.e., English Press).  Heavy Police and Military presences were deployed.
Conduct of the Polls
Polls and polling go smoothly. Voters at ease.
United Kingdom
Given the UK’s well-practised election machinery, almost without exception the vote proceeded smoothly with all 30 million votes cast and counted within 24 hours.
Polling day went smoothly with voters seemingly unfazed by heavy Police and Military presences.  6.74 million cast their votes.  Fewer complaints lodged than in previous years. Two factors spoiled the day.
Absentee voters were not given by right time off from work to return home to vote. Reports of military trucks conveying soldiers in to vote in some marginal communes. No provision for Cambodians abroad to vote.
Conduct of the count
Count goes smoothly & accepted by the candidates, parties, and independent observers.
Counts were completed & accepted between just over one hour after polls closed and just over 24 hours.
The count generally proceeded smoothly – it cannot match UK speeds as each ballot is held up to be inspected, and communication to collate.co-ordinate counts varies.  40 Recounts have been demanded. How to interpret spoiled/rejected ballots still subject to dispute.
Post election disputes
Only plausible disputes registered, dealt with expeditiously, outcome accepted by all.
None – will be updated if any reported and proven.
Incomplete section – to be finalised.  A stated above 40 recounts lodged at NEC but most rejected during NEC’s opaque internal processes. Those accepted have been contested with one disorderly recount.
Transfer of power
Candidates winning the vote take up office with full rights and responsibilities. Winning party (parties) take office, losers accept Opposition or junior role in government.
Although the Conservative Party did not win a majority, as it won most seats, constitutionally it can form government as a minority or with agreement of another party – that may be a formal coalition or support on major votes that can bring down a government ( confidence & budget approval).  This is accepted by all parties.
Incomplete section – to be finalised.  Please see my codicil above in text:  If...482 ( or so) communes won by the CNRP are amicably handed over by CPP and if in most of the 1,646 newly-elected Commune Councils we see a return to the original idea for them of sharing power “.
Overall Result
Fully, free, and credible elections throughout.
Meets best international standards.   
Still falls short of international standards.

This was my blog written before both Cambodian and UK elections - please read to compare "Before and After" It would be good to have a French election comparison.

[1] The best example of winners and losers accepting results and the “referee’s” decision was in my home county of Northumberland in Blyth where the counts equal in local elections, the seat was won on a toss of a coin.  Now not only did that mean one party lost a seat but it also lost its potential majority rule of the authority. Smallest majority in the national election was just 2, accepted without rancour as in Cambodia.
[2] Cambodia’s political scene is often punctuated by assault, litigation and assassinations of political and civil society opponents. In the last election build-up, prominent commentator and analyst Kem Ley was killed.
[3] See for example my blog and links regarding the repeated “exclusion” of Opposition Leader Sam Rainsy from active local politics,a tactic employed by the ruling party also with former Opponent Prince Ranariddh.
[4] Officials at commune level conducting registration have considerable discretion to enter and deny registration to electors. Also the ruling party refuses to countenance absentee voting, unlike other countries even within ASEAN, so workers working away from home (garment workers, university students, etc) and all Cambodians abroad are disenfranchised. Needless to say these groups tend to be opposition supporters.

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