THE voter enters the precinct. Voter’s ID is checked, given a ballot, goes to the booth, votes, drops the ballot into a box, puts the indelible ink and exits the precinct. The whole process takes approximately two minutes.
An election was held on Sunday, June 4, 2017, in the Kingdom of Cambodia. It was the communal election which is held every five years. Twelve political parties were registered to participate but only two major parties were able to complete a full slate of candidates in all 1,646 communes—the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) which is the administration party, and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).
I was invited to be an election observer, being one of the representatives of Centrist Asia Pacific Democrats International (CAPDI), where I sit as deputy secretary general. For this particular mission, our delegation was headed by Agung Laksono, vice president of CAPDI and a former Speaker of the Parliament of Indonesia. Our host was the Cambodia National Election Committee (NEC).
In the previous communal election held in 2012, the CPP garnered 62 percent of the vote. During the general election held the following year, in 2013, the CPP lost ground considerably with close to 49 percent of the national vote for parliament. This communal election would then be a preview of what could happen in the next national election for parliament slated for 2018. The stakes were high.
Since the late 1990s, the CPP, under the leadership of Prime Minister Hun Sen, has controlled the government of Cambodia. They have made great strides in providing political stability and economic growth. They were rewarded for their governance again and again in elections. The situation is different now. There are younger, more informed voters and they want change. The CNRP is the political vehicle for them to express their desire for change.
The CPP has responded to this challenge by promoting young, progressive, idealistic, and well-educated members into their ranks with major party responsibilities. Whether this will be enough to stem the desire for change remains to be seen.
This being a parliamentary system party discipline and party platforms are paramount in the political debate. Since the voter was voting for a political party, candidates with a common political agenda ran under their respective parties and their underlying platforms. Political personalities were still a major factor in the debate, with Hun Sen clearly identified with the CPP and Sam Rainsy (currently in exile) and Kem Sokha with the CNRP. The voters clearly understood that a vote for CPP was a vote for Hun Sen and a vote for CNRP was a vote for the opposition led by Rainsy/Sokha. Hence, no possibility for gridlock.
While talking to voters, I noticed how well-informed they were about the issues after the 14-day campaign period. The political parties did their grassroots organizational work long before the campaign period. Their candidates were carefully selected to follow the party platform. The result was a fully informed voter with a clear idea of where he/she wanted the country to go and as to which particular political party should lead them to achieve their goal.
This election was not devoid of the usual dirty tricks that is prevalent in all elections, parliamentary or presidential, especially in a country that lost its brightest minds during the Khmer Rouge regime four decades ago. The administration was accused of using legal means to trump up charges against the opposition to weaken the latter’s chances. There were also charges of vote-buying on the eve of the election, which was hard to independently verify. Cambodia’s democratic institutions are still weak and in transition to a more open environment. But progress is definitely being made. I noticed a clear desire among the voters to settle their differences peacefully via the ballot box. They have had enough of violence. Every voter I had the opportunity to talk to had a member of their family or relative killed by the Khmer Rouge.
Each polling booth could accommodate a maximum of 700 voters. The polls opened at 7a.m. and closed at 3p.m. The manual counting started at 3:30 p.m. There were representatives of each major party at the polling area during the voting and counting process. All the voter had to do was to check the box corresponding to the political party of choice. By approximately 5:30 p. m., the counting was done on the precinct level. By 7p. m., the nationwide results were in, albeit still unofficial. Official results will be released on June 25.
The CPP got 51 percent of the popular vote while the CNRP got 46 percent. Both sides accepted the results. The CPP was the winner but with a lesser mandate. The CNRP made substantial gains. Both claimed victory. There were no reports of violence and election monitoring teams where mostly upbeat about the conduct of the elections. But the real winners were the Cambodian people. A record turnout of over 89 percent of 9.6 million registered voters participated.
As I was observing the whole electoral process, what struck me the most was how engaged the body politic was, particularly the voter, in this communal political exercise. I wonder if this could happen if their system imposed on their voter the requirement to vote for over 30 individuals and one party on the party list like what we have here.
A parliamentary system promotes party discipline and a more informed electorate.
The author is the deputy secretary general of the Centrist Asia Pacific Democrats International (CAPDI) and the former president of Lakas CCMD. He is the Philippine representative of EleksDış Tic. A.Ş., one of the Elginkan Group’s companies since May 2014.