Thursday, 25 July 2013

The 2013 Cambodian election, Part 1: The menu of strategic manipulation

A curious sight greeted the unwitting backpackers exiting Phnom Penh airport one week before Cambodia’s parliamentary elections of 28th July 2013. Just two days before, opposition leader Mr. Sam Rainsy had returned to the capital after a royal pardon ended his four-year long self-imposed exile. Allegedly, Cambodia’s long-time prime-minister, Mr. Hun Sen, had suggested the royal pardon himself to thwart allegations that the polling would be neither free nor fair. The prime minister’s move might be seen as an empty gesture helping primarily him and his legitimacy, but Sam Rainsy’s return has undoubtedly energized the Cambodian electorate.

Although not eligible as a candidate himself, the opposition leader’s arrival drew tens of thousands to the streets of the capital, and subsequent appearances in his tour through the country generated similarly large number in other provinces. The major TV news outlets didn’t deem it necessary to report this event, and left the field to foreign reporters, smaller news outlets, and citizen journalists. Shortly after, YouTube and the digital sphere were buzzing with videos of his appearances.

Even when the official rallies were over, droves of people lined the main street leading from the airport into the city, holding banners and shouting “Change or no change?” One couldn’t help but notice that the cheering crowds were young--the average age was 20 or below.

Sam Rainsy returns (Source: Phnom Penh Post)

Seldom has an election energized Cambodia as much as the upcoming poll this Sunday, even though the prospects for a real change in government are as bleak as always. The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has maintained--and even extended--its power in every single post-war election since the first UN-administered election in 1993: in 2008 they increased their legislative seats from 64 to 90 (out of 126) and in the 2012 local commune elections they won 68% of all commune council seats (but occupying the crucial position of commune chief in an astonishing 97.5% of all communes).

However, perhaps due to Sam Rainsy’s return and the merger of his and another major opposition party into the new Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), coupled with increased attention among young first-time voters, the stakes are perceived as higher than ever. Numerous incidents from gunshots fired at CNRP headquarters, to clashes between CPP and CNRP supporters, to an attempted hack of the National Election Commission’s (NEC) computers by members of Anonymous Cambodia, attest to the highly charged atmosphere.

Few of the recommendations of foreign observers have been implemented since the last election. This time around, international observers were either not invited (except a few individual observers from ASEAN countries), or declined to come so as to avoid bestowing legitimacy on a process that they deemed flawed from the start. In a recent joint statement, the election watch NGO COMFREL and an alliance of civil society organizations drew attention to the most widespread problems in Cambodia's electoral process. The strategic “menu of manipulation” includes:

1) Intimidation and threats
Although there have been no killings (at the time of writing), the joint statement cites continued threats, intimidation, and disruptions “both at grassroots and national level”. Due to the overwhelmingly strong grip of the CPP on commune councils, commune chiefs and other local authorities are in a unique position to exert pressure on the electorate. This includes ostracizing known opposition supporters from the community, refusing to register them, or threatening other sanctions. Closely related to this is the engagement of security forces (military and police) in political activity, including election campaigns. Although prohibited by law, observers frequently recorded such partisan activities, which are just as frequently denied by officials.

2) Manipulation of voter lists
Two independent Voter Registry Audits (VRA), one conducted by NDI, Cambodia’s Center for Advanced Studies, and the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC), and another one conducted by COMFREL, found that 10.5-13.5% of eligible voters who thought they were registered did not actually appear on official registration lists. This amounts to more than one million disenfranchised voters (out of an electorate of about 9.6 million). At the same time, up to 18.3% of names on the voter list were invalid, according to the NICFEC VRA, either because they were deceased, lived somewhere else, or were completely made up names. This obviously opens the door to ‘ghost voting’, or ballot box stuffing. These two phenomena led to an interesting distribution of inflated and deflated voter lists throughout the country’s communes. Curiously, several tightly contested constituencies show inflated lists, as do opposition strongholds. Both, over-registration of non-existent voters, as well as under-registration of presumed opposition voters could be a strategic manipulation and could give the final push in closely contested constituencies. But such suspicions are at this point not backed by hard data.

Variation in voter registration (Source: Phnom Penh Post)

Just shortly before the election, the NEC ordered the regional consultancy Business and Marketing Research Solutions Asia (BMRS) to conduct their own VRA in rebuttal. Though this audit found a similar number of 13% erroneous or missing names, the NEC argued that most of them would still be able to vote (because if only one consonant is spelt wrong, one can still vote according to NEC regulations). Whether such assertions are credible or not, these problems should have been addressed far before the election. The interesting finding here is however that the second audit seems to have been a reaction to international doubts about the fairness of the election. Could it be that even hegemonic electoral autocracies are subject to some sort of pressure? And if yes, does this pressure generate from within or from outside of the country?

3) Restricted media access and biased reporting
The influence of the ruling party on the media, especially television and radio, remains strong. A media monitoring effort by COMFREL between February and March 2013 found “over 4000 speeches by, or references, to Prime Minister Hun Sen […]in contrast to 1200 combined mentions of the two opposition leaders, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, on radio FM105. Broadcasts referencing FUNCINPEC leader Nhoek Bunchhay were observed only a 170 times.” (Source: COMFREL). Cambodian television by and large does not report on opposition rallies or emphasizes negative news, such as traffic disruptions or social unrest. One radio host went so far as to predict a military coup in the unlikely event that the CNRP should get elected.

On the other side of the political divide, the CNRP brandishes nationalist anti-Vietnamese rhetoric against alleged illegal immigrants and voters bused in from the neighboring country. It is also a thinly-veiled reference to the prime minister's rise to power during the Vietnamese occupation. Such incitements have been decried as hate-speech by the CPP. Overall, the media landscape is at the same time systematically skewed in favor of the ruling party and has become a platform for what Sarah Birch calls the 'black arts' of manipulative campaigning.

4) Misuse of state resources
There is a long tradition of clientelistic power dynamics and misuse of local development funds or Ministry of Interior resources in Cambodia. The established practice of gift-giving as a coercive tactic is well-institutionalized in this country, and the CPP is ideally positioned to make full use of its strong networks of commune chiefs and local canvassers in this regard. The state’s resources provide an ample reservoir for pork spending and more mundane forms of voter or candidate-buying. Naturally, such tactics are as old as Southeast Asian politics itself. CNRP's Sam Rainsy tried to counter them in an innovating and frightening way: by announcing a "bounty" on canvassers. In a speech he offered to double the money offered to voters if they exposed the party agents offering it.

Prime minister Hun Sen (Source: CTV News)

The NEC has been inactive--or even obstructive--on most of these issues. The commissioners themselves consistently reject criticism and dismiss most problems as minor or due to incapacities. According to NEC, complaints are duly received, assessed, and dealt with. But the fact that international and domestic observers' recommendations are continuously ignored certainly makes it easier to classify this as a manipulation of vote choice (as Sarah Birch calls it). 

In Birch’s typology of different types of manipulations she expects the choice of manipulation strategy to be the result of weighing costs and benefits. The strategic manipulation of rules carries the lowest risk. However, in the Cambodian case, much of the regulatory structure, which was set up under the auspices of the United Nations Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC), turned out to be comparatively robust, making this long-term strategy perhaps less accessible to the ruling elites. Organizations like COMFREL or NICFEC might insist that adherence to the law is lacking in the NEC's and some political parties' conduct. But the fact remains that such a relevant body of law exists.

The next best thing, according to Birch, is the manipulation of vote choice. All the described issues in Cambodia fall firmly into this category, further split up into “manipulation of the voters genuine preferences” (media bias, misuse of state resources, and candidate intimidation/obstruction), and “manipulation of voters expressed preference” through undue influence (vote-buying and voter coercion). In line with her expectations, the ruling party in Cambodia relies mainly on these strategies as the ones with the next-best cost-benefit ratio.

Resorting to outright manipulation of the vote (i.e. election day fraud, ballot box stuffing, carousel and ghost voting) would be a sign of the CPP’s slipping control.

The manipulation of elections is costly, as the quite vocal criticism by watchdog organizations (both domestic and international) shows. At the same time, increased reliance on Chinese investments insulate the ruling regime from outside pressure to a certain degree. In that sense, the ball is back in the corner of those young Cambodians lining the street from the airport or riding around town in the evening on their motorcycles, waving opposition flags and shouting "change".

And it is up to those Cambodians for whom elections with integrity are in themselves the yard stick by which to measure their country's progress. They will place scrutiny on the elections as they unfold by making use of cellphone cameras, the blogosphere, and their sheer presence. Ironically, the higher the turnout of young people and the closer the race, the higher the chances will be for outright vote manipulation. In such an event, any election result is likely to be refuted by the opposition, leading to post-election protest and a possible crackdown like that seen after the 1998 election. Whatever the scenario after election day, it is quite possible that those who characterize the process as a farce will be seen as being right.

More to come...

by Max Grömping

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