Why organising non-votes will not save Cambodian democracy

Photo: CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

The calls to boycott the Cambodian general election are growing. But a boycott will not save Cambodian democracy.


Cambodia’s Candlelight Party has urged their supporters to join the election boycott. The party is the latest voice to call for a nationwide boycott of the upcoming general election. Ex-opposition leader, Sam Rainsy is among those organising the boycott movement.

Cambodia’s Electoral Body has responded to the boycott movement with disdain. The National Election Committee (NEC) threatened legal action against anyone dissuading the public from voting.

Cambodia’s general election will not be free or fair

The opposition is orchestrating a boycott in protest of the unfair election process. Cambodians will go to the polls for the July 29th general election. However, the main opposition party will not feature on the ballot paper. The Cambodian government dissolved the main opposition party last November. It arrested the Cambodian National Rescue Party’s (CNRP) leader, Kem Sokha.

Smaller opposition parties are also reporting obstacles to the democratic process. Members of the Dharmacracy Party have encountered problems registering to stand for election. Dharmacracy Party President Pothitey Sawathey described how one member received threats. “When she went to get her address document signed, she was threatened”, she said.

The Khmer Anti-Poverty Party has encountered similar problems. It reported that commune chiefs have flatly refused to sign candidates’ NEC forms.

These roadblocks to the democratic process further undermine the Cambodian democratic process. They indicate Prime Minister Hun Sen’s desire to eliminate electoral opposition. There are currently only three parties registered to stand in the July elections. In the 2013 elections, there were eight parties registered.

Why boycott the election?

A boycott would show that the elections do not reflect the people’s will. Sam Rainsy urged international monitors to “refrain from observing an electoral farce with a foregone conclusion.” The boycott campaign is hoping the international community will not recognise the election. It is also calling for economic sanctions, similar to those imposed on the Burmese junta.

However, their wishes are unlikely to materialise. The US has withheld aid packages. But others are still willing to support Hun Sen. Japan recently granted Hun Sen’s government US$4.6 million in aid. It also provided a generous loan of US$86 million. Beijing has also provided Cambodia with election equipment worth US$11 million.

The US and EU are also unlikely to follow up aid withdrawals with economic sanctions. After Thailand’s military coup in 2014, they did not impose economic sanctions. Nor have they sanctioned Myanmar for its handling of the Rohingya crisis. The Philippines also remains unsanctioned despite swathes of extrajudicial killings. Neither the US nor the EU has the inclination to sanction ASEAN nations.

A boycott will not work

It is not in the opposition’s interest to persevere with an election boycott. The international community has already played its hand. Japan and China will give Hun Sen the aid he needs, and the EU and US are not willing to impose sanctions.

The opposition would achieve more channelling its energy into supporting a smaller party. Both the Khmer Anti-Poverty Party and the Dharmacracy Party will field election candidates. The remaining CNRP members and supporters should rally behind these candidates. They must pressure local commune chiefs into giving their signatures. Name and shame individuals obstructing the course of democracy.

The international community will not rescue Cambodian democracy. But the Cambodian people can. They can vent their frustrations through the limited democratic channels available. Hun Sen will win. But the more votes there are for opposition parties, the more voices hold him accountable.