Worker mobilisation gives hope to Cambodian elections


Cambodians will go to the polls on 28 July for a parliamentary election that will also determine the prime minister.

Unfortunately, Cambodia is not a democratic state and because of the firm grip the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has over most government and social institutions, including the state media, many fear the end result is foreordained.

Prime Minister Hun Sen has won five elections in 28 years and there have been numerous allegations of the abuse of state resources, vote buying and voter intimidation by Asia’s longest serving ruler and his party. According to Human Rights Watch:

“The CPP controls almost all state and private television and radio stations, ensuring a constant stream of pro-government propaganda and an equal stream of vitriol about the opposition. The CPP publicly tells communities that they will be rewarded if they vote for the party and penalized if they vote for the opposition through the withholding of state resources for things like schools, health clinics, and roads.

“Senior military and police officials openly campaign for the CPP in defiance of Cambodian law. With the country’s long history of political violence, one can imagine what a poor villager in a remote area thinks when a general shows up and tells him or her who to vote for.”

The Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), which is one of the country’s main democracy organisation, has stated that this will be the least fair election since the Paris Peace Agreements of 1991 and that Cambodia is moving in an authoritarian direction.

And although the government has taken the positive step of pardoning opposition leader Sam Rainsey and allowing him to return to Cambodia to actively campaign, as of now, it is unlikely that he will be allowed to appear as an election candidate.

There are also technical flaws in the voting system which threatens to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters, in addition to several more hundreds of thousands of migrant workers.

Neither the US nor the EU are sending observers, unlike in 2008 when the EU sent a fully-fledged mission. This is in part because previous recommendations have fallen on deaf ears by the government.


Worker mobilisation

There is one ray of light in Cambodia’s election this year, however, and that’s the growing political consciousness and mobilisation of the nation’s trade unionists, especially in the garment sector.

This is hardly surprising – there is no other section of Cambodian society for whom the stakes are higher. Indeed, the ILO recently issued a report outlining deteriorating working conditions for garment workers in Cambodia, particularly in the areas of worker and fire safety, and the use of child labour.

Just recently, 16 Cambodian garment workers and union representatives were charged with inciting violence and damaging property during a strike for higher pay at a factory making clothes for US sportswear company Nike. Some 4,000 workers participated in the action and hundreds more were fired for striking.

When it comes to the actual voting process, the biggest concern is around the voter registration list. According to a recent audit and analysis by the National Democratic Institute (NDI):

  • 11 per cent of those surveyed who believed they were registered to vote were not on the voter registration list
  • 8 per cent of those who voted in one of the last two elections were not on the voter registration list
  • 9.4 percent of voters were incorrectly placed on the deletion list

A COMFREL study also found that 13.5 per cent of registered voters – some 1.25 million people – were not accurately registered on the voter’s list. Many of these citizens will show up at the polls on Election Day expecting to vote – only to find they cannot. The state’s election commission, the NEC, has denied these findings.

The NEC is another problem. It is considered to be so biased that it is not trusted to implement a fair election.

Commissioners are known to be affiliated with the ruling party despite years of national and international pressure to create a truly independent commission.

Mostly recently, the NEC refused to allow Rainsey, the opposition leader of the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), to be listed on the ballot.

The CPP also controls the courts that would adjudicate any election disputes.


Migrant workers

Another troubling aspect of the upcoming election is the disenfranchisement of migrant workers.

Almost 600,000 migrant workers living abroad will be unable to cast a vote.

Many of these Cambodian workers are in Thailand, with substantial numbers in Malaysia and South Korea. They have left the country for the sole purpose of earning a decent wage, but nonetheless, there is no mechanism for them to participate.

There is also the dilemma of migrant workers within Cambodia – those who have travelled from rural areas to the cities for work but who have not re-registered in their new constituencies and cannot afford to return to their original homes to vote.

An NDI audit found that 17.1 per cent of registered voters – 1.65 million people – were not living where they registered.

As previously mentioned, however, the growing activism of the unions this year is good news. This is particularly evident among garment workers, of which there are more than ½ million in a country where garment exports form the biggest source of income.

They are expected to turn out in force at this year’s elections. It has reached the point where the CPP and CNRP are essentially in a bidding war for their support.

Unionists in support of both parties have been rallying in the streets, albeit amid allegations that the ruling party has been paying workers to show up.

But, even though government-aligned unions are a heavy presence in the garment factories, experts suspect that when Election Day comes, the workers may not necessarily follow the directions of their union leadership.

Widespread expectations are that the ruling party, given its outsize control of the system, will be returned to power. But the political awakening of thousands of workers – many of them women under the age of 30 – is sure to reverberate in Cambodia for years to come.