Takhmau Town, Kandal province – Commune councilors and lawmakers from around the country traversed long distances and, in some cases, overcame considerable hardships to attend the nation’s first-ever Senate election on Sunday.
Preliminary results offered few surprises: CPP earned 7,854 votes, Funcinpec received 2,320 and the Sam Rainsy Party earned 1,165, the National Election Committee reported.
According to CPP calculations, this could translate into 43 CPP-held seats, 12 for Funcinpec and two for the Sam Rainsy Party, CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith said. But seats will not be officially allocated for at least a week.
Though the opposition and observers had voiced criticism in the run-up to the election, which they dismissed as undemocratic by design, most in attendance said the vote ran smoothly and there was no interference.
“I am proud that the election proceeds without foreign experts and budgets,” Prime Minister Hun Sen said after casting his ballot at the Kandal province polling station set up at the Kandal Pedagogy School in Takhmau town.
The prime minister was the first National Assembly member to vote at 7 am, after circulating reports that he would not vote until hours later.
Despite some missteps-a few Senate candidates were seen inside a voting compound, which is against National Election Committee rules, and at least one complaint was made about ballot design-NEC spokesman Leng Sochea called the election a success.
“The situation of the election with the 23 polling stations is going smoothly,” Leng Sochea said on Sunday morning.
He denied that there was any problem with the ballots and said more than 200 monitors had been dispatched to polling stations. Political parties now have one week to lodge any complaints about the election procedure.
Leng Sochea added that the election’s large turnout shows how seriously participants considered this vote. “Even the patients in hospitals [were] sent in by car, because the vote of each party member is very important,” he said.
Sam Rainsy Party commune councilor Yin Hong, 52, who is suffering from liver disease, was one such determined voter.
Despite his pallor and weak condition, Yin Hong traveled 70 km from Prek Tumlab commune in Kandal province’s Leuk Dek district, and hobbled into the voting both leaning heavily on one friend, while another carried his intravenous drip on a stick.
“I was afraid that I would lose a vote for Sam Rainsy Party,” he explained.
The voter turnout reported by NEC on Sunday evening was remarkable: Out of 11,384 eligible voters, 11,372 cast ballots. Only 20 of those ballots were voided because of irregularities.
Chea Chhorn, 55, a CPP commune councilor from Phom Thom commune in Kandal province’s Kien Svay district, said he had gladly paid his own way in order to take part in the election.
“In all of my life, this is the first time that there is a decentralization system here. The benefit of the election is the hope that there will be a better law, because these people will create laws to protect people,” Chea Chhorn said of the Senate.
“Three other commune councilors and I hired one car,” he said. “We spent our own money-this is my sacrifice for the party.”
Though voters largely vowed to cast their ballots along party lines, Chea Chhorn and others said it was by choice, not because of pressure.
Even though the Senate plays a limited role in the legislature, its democratic installation was crucial to affirming its legitimacy, they said.
“This election is a step toward democratization,” Funcinpec Co-Minister of Interior Prince Norodom Sirivudh said after voting in Kandal province.
He added that, following the election, senators would be better able to serve their constituents.
But Sam Rainsy Party members-who have decried the Senate election process and threatened to boycott the vote-took a dimmer view.
“We don’t like the Senate election law, we condemn this law, it can be regarded as unlawful,” opposition parliamentarian Ho Vann said before voting at Boeng Trabek High School in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district. “But we have to accept our fraction: We cannot allow other political parties to take our seats from us.”
Prior to the election, the Sam Rainsy Party was expected to lose four of its seven Senate seats, based on the number of Sam Rainsy Party commune council members and lawmakers.
“I strongly hope that Sam Rainsy Party commune councilors and lawmakers will vote for Sam Rainsy Party, and I welcome any commune councilors or lawmakers from other parties to vote for Sam Rainsy Party as well,” Ho Vann said, adding the election appeared to be free and fair.