Phnom Penh, Cambodia – “I won’t go to vote,” said Sovanny*, describing how she felt crushed earlier this year when Cambodia’s only credible opposition party was disqualified from elections.
“Why would I vote when there’s only one party?” the 45-year-old street food vendor said of the national election in Cambodia. “It’s a waste of time.
“In a boxing ring, there needs to be two competitors … but when there’s only one person, what is the point of that?” she said.
Eighteen parties, including the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), will compete for votes in Cambodia’s seventh national election on Sunday.
But the disqualification of Cambodia’s opposition Candlelight Party in May has essentially guaranteed victory for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP.
Hun Sen won easily in the last national election in 2018 when the popular opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party was banned from political life by the country’s courts. Once again, Cambodia’s long-ruling leader is set for another election walkover now that he has no real competition, though he insists that Cambodia’s elections remain free and fair.
In the weeks since the disqualification of the Candlelight Party, Hun Sen’s government has also moved to curb the remaining means for his critics to speak out.
On June 23, the country’s National Assembly – where the CPP holds all 125 parliamentary seats – amended election laws, including adding a criminal “incitement” charge for anyone who “impedes” the election by engaging in such practices as telling others not to vote.
The government also warned that it will prosecute anyone who encourages others to spoil their ballots, and has warned of jail for anyone who tries to protest.
Hun Sen claimed the election law was changed to strengthen democracy and to protect against efforts by some to dissuade people from going to the polls in what critics see as the least competitive election Cambodia has hosted in 30 years of multi-party voting.
Last week, the amended law took its first victims when two members of the Candlelight Party were arrested for allegedly “inciting” people to spoil their ballot papers.
Within days, two more Candlelight activists were arrested under the same law, while 17 overseas opposition figures were fined and banned from participating in politics for 20 to 25 years.
Internet service providers in Cambodia have also been ordered by the government to block access to the websites and social media platforms of several independent media organisations and a public database.
The news and information outlets had caused “confusion”, which affected the “prestige and honour” of the government, according to a statement ordering the blocking of the sites.
Denied access to independent sources of news, feeling pressured to vote in a flawed election, and fearful of punishment if they protest, frustrated Cambodians say the situation leaves them with one remaining option: quietly staying at home on election day.
‘Keeping quiet is the best way’
Li Ming*, a 23-year-old working with a non-governmental organisation in Cambodia, said he had decided weeks ago that he would not “waste time and resources” travelling the 300km (186 miles) back to his hometown to vote.
“I already know who’s going to win,” he told Al Jazeera.
But Li Ming will not tell anyone outside his immediate family about his choice. Even though his circle of friends is disconnected from the government, and he knows he is not breaking the law by simply not voting, Li Ming said silence about not voting is the safest option in today’s Cambodia.
“Keeping quiet is the best way,” he said.
Some supporters of the ruling party also believe that voting in elections has become an empty formality, and that was neither good for Cambodia’s international image nor governance in the country, said Pisey*, a member of staff at the country’s Interior Ministry.
The 35-year-old said the disqualification of the opposition from the election posed problems for Cambodia’s self-image as a democratic country, which it signed up to as part of a peace agreement in 1991 that ended the country’s years of civil war.
“Democratic countries always have an opposition party,” Pisey said, admitting that such discussion do not take place in his ministry.
“We need the opposition [to act] as a mirror to the government,” he said.
But, when asked if he would vote on Sunday, Pisey said: “I do as my ministry tells me.”
Incoming law student Kosal* told how his parents were civil servants working in a government ministry, but they had always criticised government corruption and excess behind closed doors.
Though young at the time, the 19-year-old said that he still remembered the surge of energy during national elections in 2013, when the opposition came very close to defeating Hun Sen’s CPP.
“That year was going to be different,” Kosal said. But through his teen years, arrests and political persecution of the opposition had ensured nothing changed.
The government’s repression of the opposition was “really messed up and ridiculous”, he said, but the more it continued the more it became normalised in society.
“The moment you start seeing something like that over and over and over, you get used to it really quick,” Kosal explained.
“I don’t really care much [about the election] because I feel like nothing’s going to change,” he continued.
Voting for the government in elections is now “a mandatory event” to avoid being blacklisted, he added.
Asked how he intended to vote on Sunday, Kosal said: “We’ll do it, we’ll come home, that’s it.”
‘Your actions are not anonymous’
Following the court-ordered dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party ahead of the last national election in 2018, exiled activists called for an election boycott to highlight the lack of genuine electoral competition.
Voters were also encouraged to privately spoil their voting papers inside polling stations if they were not able to boycott the election.
Despite threats from government officials, nearly one-tenth of votes cast in the 2018 election were considered invalid. Techniques to void their vote included people ticking all the boxes on ballot papers, leaving all the boxes blank, and other defacements that ruled them out from inclusion in the vote count.
Likely pre-empting a repeat at Sunday’s election, Hun Sen has offered his own warning, saying in a recent speech that “Your actions are not anonymous. When you speak, your voice reaches me.”
Astrid Noren-Nilsson, an expert on Cambodian politics and senior lecturer at the Centre for East and South-East Asian Studies at Lund University, said the ruling party faced far less challenge from voters compared with previous elections.
The government has quashed dissent and also won support by hosting large national events, such as the Southeast Asian Games, and Hun Sen’s chairmanship of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2022.
“It’s a much less dangerous point for the government now as compared with five years ago. I don’t think it necessarily means people will accept going to the elections without the main legitimate opposition party participating, but I think that people’s attention has been pushed away,” Noren-Nilsson said.
“There’s much less outrage in society now,” she said.
Opposition leaders believe that outrage has not disappeared so much as entered a stage of hibernation.
“It’s not that Cambodian youth don’t care about politics. They care about it, but they lose hope,” said Phon Sophea, a Candlelight Party leader based in the country’s Kandal province.
“Cambodian youth are smart. They know how to adapt themselves to the current political situation — if there’s a party that truly aspires for democracy, they’ll be back,” he said.
*The names of some Cambodians have been changed in this article to protect them from possible repercussions.