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Election fever, fear and fervour!

Fascinating to be able to watch at close-hand two elections – one in Cambodia and the other in the UK. Now we know that they are very different, so you can't make true comparisons, but they do give rise to interesting and valid observations on electoral processes.

One major distinction is clear. For the ruling party in one country the election was wanted and called, whereas for the other, it is not welcome, at least while there's any risk of losing.

Another distinction is the UK electoral administering body just does not feature, unlike in Cambodia. It is taken for granted that by and large it will be neutral and professional. Cambodia's National Election Committee has still not attained this accolade, although it often does better than expected. Its problem is proving its independence and objectivity when it really matters, such as dealing with disputes. It has again failed one key test by not taking action “as no complaint has been made” of Prime Minister Hun Sen arousing fear through the threat of war if he loses. (More on this below.)

Theresa May broken promises like "No election!"
Last night we had the first close encounter on British TV involving the two main party leaders. The UK Prime Minister Theresa May refused to debate alongside Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. However, they were in the same studio, same “live” format, before the same audience representative of the general public, and seated to be quizzed by one of the great political questioners “Paxo”, Jeremy Paxman.

Now, for sure no way would Hun Sen agree to subject himself to such a process even though it is exactly what most Cambodians - including his own supporters - would want. And Paxo would end up either in Prey Sar prison; exiled like his gentler peer Chun Chanbot, or suffer the same fate as Kem Ley who was killed for uttering "hostile" words.

The truth is the election fever has not hit the UK in the way it has in Cambodia. Turnout for the local elections in England a few weeks ago was just 36%. Cambodia will beat that.

Cambodia's elections in June are a fore-runner to the national elections next year. In fact the political parties are campaigning as if they were the real thing.

And just like the UK and democracies everywhere, the choice is between change and continuity.

Jeremy Corbyn popular with young, not with right-wing media
Enthusiasm often denotes mood for change.  Apathy the converse.  In this sense, Cambodians win all hands down. There is little election fervour so far in the UK. Jeremy Corbyn like Senator Bernie Sanders in the United States has a very large enthusiastic following, especially among young voters. But the inescapable fact is young people are least likely to register to vote and cast their ballots on election day, unlike older groups. Will Cambodia suffer the same fate? Is such an outcome engineered by the [deliberate] lack of simple online or in-person registration and voting procedures, that UK voters take for granted? They can vote by post, despite being away from home, and from abroad. By contrast, Cambodia's students and garment factory workers, mainly young women, if registered in their home provinces, must go there to vote in person. That is what foreign-based Cambodian voters must do too. Would this be the rule if these groups were not inclined to vote for change?

Incumbency of office is often an advantage in elections. This is where Cambodian and the UK ruling parties have much in common. Both are invoking “Project Fear” the term used in the UK debate last year on whether to exit or stay in the European Union. Election fear is a powerful weapon. In the UK it's more rhetoric “you'll suffer materially” than life-threatening as it is in Cambodia that has a history of killing and violence in elections.

Both Theresa May and Hun Sen are portraying themselves as powerful leaders although only one of them has the credentials to prove it. The entire strategies of both ruling parties are based on such claims. Both warn of dire consequences of voting for their opponent. Stability or Chaos? Well-off or poor? The opportunity to attain unchecked wealth and privilege or Society's obligation to care for its vulnerable members from cradle to grave?

Jeremy Corbyn in this sense has more in common with Kem Sokha, Cambodian Opposition leader, than the priest's daughter Theresa May has with Pagoda Boy Hun Sen. All four are die-hard politicians. All four in power would break promises made on the campaign trail. At least in the UK, there is no escape for Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn. They will be held to account. They are already being challenged scrupulously and mercilessly by the likes of Paxo, and there are too many like him in the media to be able to kill off.

And that in a nutshell is the key difference between the UK and Cambodia. Freedom of expression. The cartoons illustrate that right being exercised to its limit.

The Cambodia Daily may boast that it reports “without fear or favor” but that is not true. It cannot be true. It has to exercise care* for the safety of its staff. And even if it was true, it is very much the exception to the rule in Cambodia where only in social media does the Opposition enjoy equality.

Cambodia's elections will not be free or fair.

And yet election fever and fervour may well carry the day in Cambodia. (They won't in the UK!)

* Cambodian Daily reporters are under court investigation for reporting on the elections in Ratanakkiri province. They were also present when environmental activist Chut Vuthy was killed by security forces.

More reading:

The Guardian has published an excellent article on the implications of the UK 2017 election on human rights...within the UK, but not as I tweeted, in terms of how it will impact on the UK's reputation and lead in human rights around the world. Without leads from the UK and US, are we entering a post human rights world as Sebastian Strangio suggests? We can already see the consequences in Cambodia.
Post-script: Cambodia elections – the fear factor and myths

Rational and irrational fears. Back in 1998, Cambodians thought that their voting could be observed by “spy-in-the-sky” satellites. It wasn't the only cause of a fear of being punished for not voting in a certain way. Pressures had been exerted; pledges secured; and thumb-prints collected - as they are today.  Usually some modest gift is given in return along with a warning if they renege on the deal. As I have blogged elsewhere, Cambodians - many of whom claim Chinese ancestry – have a Confucian-obligation of expecting any favour once given and accepted to be returned.

If there is doubt about the secrecy of the ballot, it is bound to have impact. It is easy for a political party to tally expected votes in defined localities, such as each polling district, then to compare actual voting against their expectations. Any departure would reveal disobedience. Villages found guilty would be punished. They would soon find themselves missing out on development projects. They would be immediately frusrtated during everyday administrative services like new identity cards or Heath Equity Fund certifications. (Letter needed for free or reduced official fees, as distinct from informal fees at health facilities)

The 1998 NEC was alert to risks to the integrity of the vote, as described in this article. So it decided to gather and mix several polling station votes be counted together It would be less easy to see exactly which communities voted which way. It did have disadvantages of extra time for the count with the risk of the ballots being tampered with in transit.

Unfortunately this arrangement has been dropped since. See for example Article 186 of the Law for Commune Elections.

Also, as I have blogged elsewhere, efforts to ensure absolute neutrality of armed forces and police no longer exist either.

1 comment:

  1. June 2017 Post UK and Cambodia Election comment. The UK's surprise election result could see some respite for the onslaught against human rights. Not only are Tory plans on human rights less likely but we are closer to Labour leaders like Keir Starmer taking power. If he retains his current portfolio on development aid, his credentials will count a lot. Please see his article in Guardian: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2017/jun/07/theresa-may-tearing-up-human-rights-laws-terrorist?CMP=share_btn_tw