PHNOM PENH — To the left of the stage in Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park on Saturday, Bun Saoak sheltered behind a throbbing speaker, seeking shade from the blinding mid-morning sun.
On the platform nearby, opposition leader Sam Rainsy told the estimated 20,000 crowd that his Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) would not budge on its demand that an investigation be held into alleged cheating in July 28 parliamentary elections.
Echoing Mr Rainsy’s claims that the election was unjust, Mu Sochea, a former government minister and an influential Rainsy ally, told The Irrawaddy that “1.2 million voters were disenfranchised intentionally and deliberately.”
Bun Saoak was not one of those voters that the opposition says were omitted from voting lists, but nonetheless was adamant there was cheating on election day. “It was not a free and fair election,” he told The Irrawaddy.
Official election results were finally released on Sunday, six weeks after the vote. Unsurprisingly, the outcome, announced by the National Election Commission (NEC), upheld the win claimed on July 28 by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP). The NEC said that the CPP won 68 seats, with the NCRP getting 55.
After the results were released, the CNRP said that it will boycott parliament and return to the streets, with three days of protests lined up for September 15-17.
While Saturday’s protest was peaceful, with police keeping a watchful distance, Cambodia’s security forces have a track record of cracking down on smaller marches by garment workers and by people affected by land grabs. A large-scale and prolonged rally could test Hun Sen’s willingness to allow continued dissent. Before Saturday’s protest, riot police were seen practicing crowd control measures, around Phnom Penh, while the Ministry of Interior sent a letter to foreign embassies suggesting that the CNRP plan was to foment a coup, though the ministry has not backed up its claim with evidence.
Both sides stand accused of stirring up tension, however. The opposition’s election campaign was marked by anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, alleging that Hun Sen, who came to power during Vietnam’s post-Khmer Rouge occupation of Cambodia, is a puppet of the Hanoi government. Rainsy has been stirring up anti-Vietnamese sentiment in a country where pogroms against Vietnamese have flared in the past, and where the two surviving Khmer Rouge leaders stand accused of genocide against Cambodia’s ethnic Vietnamese minority.
The contentions have been entwined with scaremongering over Vietnamese migrants in Cambodia and claims that Vietnamese — presumably Hun Sen supporters — were allowed to vote. Such claims emerged at last Saturday’s rally. “At the high school where I vote, there was a problem. Vietnamese were voting, and Khmer were not,” said Bun Saoak.
It seems unlikely, however, that the opposition can pressure Hun Sen into drastic concessions, with CPP lawmakers saying that the CPP will form a government regardless of any opposition boycott. Kheang Un, a Cambodian politics lecturer at Northern Illinois University, said the proposed boycott and protests are unlikely have much impact — unless supplemented by international pressure such as trade sanctions and aid cuts.
“At the moment the situation in Cambodia is not that grave that it warrants such drastic action,” said Kheang Un.
The CNRP has said that the official bodies such as NEC and the Constitutional Committee — which earlier rejected opposition cheating claims — are biased in favor of the CPP and Cambodia’s long-entrenched Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is now nearing three decades in office.
Koul Panha of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (COMFREL), which monitored the July 28 vote, said that Cambodia needs long term electoral reform, including overhauling the NEC and the Constitutional Committee. “The voter registration and lists need to be looked at as well,” he told The Irrawaddy.
And though the CNRP has failed to dislodge Hun Sen from office, the opposition made hefty gains in the election, winning 44.5 per cent of the popular vote to the CPP’s 48.8 per cent – a drop of almost 10 per cent for Hun Sen’s party since its landslide win in the 2008 election.
The close call — even if on the back of cheating — could serve as a wake-up call for the CPP, which stands accused of widespread corruption, nepotism and of backing controversial land grabs, improprieties that seemingly prompted voters to opt for the CNRP.
“If the CPP fails to initiate meaningful reforms then it will face even more vocal opposition, backed by an even more restless youth,” said Kheang Un.