Phnom Penh, Cambodia – “I will not vote,” said Sovanny*, describing how she felt dejected earlier this year when Cambodia’s only credible opposition party was banned from the elections.
“Why should I vote when there is only one party?” the 45-year-old street vendor said of Cambodia’s national elections. “It’s a waste of time.
“In a boxing ring, there have to be two competitors … but if there’s only one person, then what’s the point?” she said.
Eighteen parties, including the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), will battle for votes in Cambodia’s seventh national election on Sunday.
But the disqualification of Cambodia’s opposition Candlelight Party in May essentially guaranteed victory for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP.
Hun Sen easily won the last national election in 2018, when the country’s courts banned the popular opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party from political life. Once again, Cambodia’s longtime leader is poised for another election victory as he has no real competition left, despite insisting Cambodia’s elections remain free and fair.
In the weeks since the Candlelight Party’s disqualification, Hun Sen’s government has also attempted to limit the remaining opportunities for its critics to speak out.
On June 23, the country’s National Assembly – in which the CPP holds all 125 parliamentary seats – amended the electoral laws, adding, among other things, a criminal charge of “instigating” anyone who “obstructs” the election, for example by telling others not to vote.
The government also warned it would prosecute anyone who encourages others to falsify their ballots and warned of jail time for anyone attempting to protest.
Hun Sen claimed the election law was changed to strengthen democracy and protect against attempts by some to discourage people from voting in what critics see as the least competitive election in Cambodia in 30 years of multiparty elections.
Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers a speech during his party election campaign in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 1, 2023 [File: Heng Sinith/AP]Last week, the amended law claimed its first victims when two members of the Candlelight Party were arrested for allegedly “instigating” the falsification of their ballots.
Within days, two more Candlelight activists were arrested under the same law, while 17 foreign 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 organizations and to a public database.
According to a statement ordering the websites to be blocked, the news and information channels created “confusion” that harmed the government’s “prestige and honour”.
Frustrated Cambodians say they are denied access to independent news sources, feel pressured to vote if an election is flawed and fear punishment if they protest. They say the situation leaves them with only one option: to stay quietly at home on election day.
“Keeping calm is the best way”
Li Ming*, a 23-year-old who works for an NGO in Cambodia, said he decided weeks ago that he would “not waste time and resources” driving the 300 km (186 miles) back to his hometown to vote.
“I already know who is going to win,” he told Al Jazeera.
But Li Ming will not tell anyone outside of his immediate family about his decision. Although his circle of friends has no connection with 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 Cambodia today.
“Silence 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 it has done neither good for Cambodia’s international image nor for the country’s governance, said Pisey*, an official at the country’s interior ministry.
The 35-year-old said barring the opposition from the election posed a problem for Cambodia’s self-image as a democratic country, which it signed in 1991 as part of a peace accord that ended the country’s years of civil war.
“Democratic countries always have an opposition party,” Pisey said, acknowledging that such discussions do not take place in his ministry.
“We need the opposition [to act] as a mirror of the government,” he said.
But when asked if he would vote on Sunday, Pisey said, “I do what my ministry tells me.”
Kosal*, a prospective law student, said his parents worked as civil servants in a government ministry, but they had always criticized government corruption and excesses behind closed doors.
Though young at the time, the 19-year-old said he still remembered the surge of energy in the 2013 national elections, when the opposition was poised to defeat Hun Sen’s CPP.
“This year would be different,” said Kosal. But during his teenage years, arrests and political persecution of the opposition ensured that nothing changed.
The government’s repression of the opposition was “really disorganized and ridiculous,” he said, but the longer it lasted, the more normalized it was in society.
“Once you see something like this over and over again, you get used to it very quickly,” explained Kosal.
“I don’t really care [about the election] because I feel like nothing will change,” he continued.
Voting for the government in elections is now “a mandatory event” to avoid being blacklisted, he added.
When asked how he intends to vote on Sunday, Kosal said: “We’ll do it, we’ll come home, that’s all.”
“Your actions are not anonymous”
After 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 falsify their ballots privately at polling stations if they were unable to boycott the election.
Despite threats from government officials, nearly a tenth of votes cast in the 2018 election were deemed invalid. Techniques used to void their vote included people ticking all the boxes on the ballot, leaving all the boxes blank, and other defacements that disqualified them from being included in the ballot count.
Probably to forestall a repeat in Sunday’s election, Hun Sen issued his own warning, saying in a recent speech, “Your actions are not anonymous.” When you speak, your voice reaches me.”
Astrid Noren-Nilsson, an expert on Cambodian politics and a lecturer at Lund University’s Center for East and Southeast Asian Studies, said the ruling party had faced far fewer challenges from voters compared to previous elections.
The government has quashed dissent and also gained support by hosting major national events such as the Southeast Asian Games and Hun Sen’s 2022 presidency of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).
“This is a much less dangerous point for the government today than it was five years ago. I don’t think that necessarily means that people will accept going to the polls without the main legitimate opposition party taking part, but I think people’s attention has been diverted,” Noren-Nilsson said.
“There’s a lot less outrage in society now,” she said.
Opposition leaders believe the outrage has not gone away but has gone into hibernation.
“It’s not that Cambodian youth aren’t interested in politics. They care, but they lose hope,” said Phon Sophea, a leader of the Candlelight Party based in the country’s Kandal province.
“Cambodian youth are smart. They know how to adapt to the current political situation – if there is a party that really strives for democracy, they will come back,” he said.
*Some Cambodians’ names have been changed in this article to protect them from potential repercussions.