At Chak Angre Krom Primary School in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district on Sunday, 82-year-old Kat Om slowly made his way out of one of the classrooms, his forefinger darkened with ink.
Mr. Om is a seasoned voter, having thrown his support behind the ruling CPP—which claims to have a staggering 5.7 million members—at every election since 1993. That was until this weekend.
“I have now changed my mind because I need some things to change,” he said, declining to name the party to which his support had swung. “That’s what I think.”
Mr. Om was one of a substantial number of people who have long publicly supported the ruling party, only to have voted for another party when ticking their ballot paper in private, leading the CPP’s stake of 90 seats in the National Assembly to fall to an estimated 68.
On Sunday, the CPP claims it received 3.2 million votes, leading to questions about the other 2.5 million votes it did not receive from its alleged party members.
The might of the CPP campaign machine was hard to miss over the 30-day campaign period, bolstered by millions of people around the country donning party shirts and caps and joining its rallies.
But according to Kem Ley, a political analyst and researcher for the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, the public display of support through membership to the ruling party is not indicative of voters’ true feelings.
“I can say that the situation in rural areas—most Cambodians are afraid to express their opinion publicly,” he said.
“They say they support the CPP, but inside, they reject it completely—almost all of them did not support the CPP. If you organize a meeting and ask if they are supporting the CPP, all of them would say it—but it’s not freedom,” he said.
“When I worked in the government 10 years ago, almost all my friends disliked the leadership of the government, but they had to attend the CPP meetings. Everyone went to the annual meeting, especially the January 7 meeting.”
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), said he believes that citizens feel obliged to show their support for the ruling party in order to avoid being discriminated against.
“I think many people don’t like to show that they would challenge the CPP, the government, officials or businessmen. They just pretend that they don’t like to challenge them,” he said.
What happened in Prey Veng on Sunday provides an illuminating view of how many of the CPP’s members did not actually vote for the ruling party.
CPP figures show that it received 251,492 votes in the province. But they also claim to have 468,000 members in the area.
For a party that has long prided itself on being able to lure defectors from other parties, a comparison of the voting figures paints a very different picture when compared to membership figures.
CPP spokesman Cheam Yeap conceded that it was likely there had been swings across the country for a number of reasons.
“It is the democratic way,” he said. “Some people are not happy with us. They are not happy with the development of Koh Pich, Boeng Kak lake and Borei Keila. Some were also tricked by the other party [CNRP] that they would get $10 per month,” Mr. Yeap added, referring to an allowance for a pension that the opposition party campaigned heavily on in the run-up to the election.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said much of the public support for the CPP was likely disingenuous “because of the wrongdoing and because the CPP policy did not touch the heart of the people, so they switched and stopped supporting the CPP and came to the CNRP.”
The CPP’s loss of seats also comes amid multiple reports of irregularities in the lead-up to the vote, as well as on election day itself.
Comfrel estimated months ago that about 1 million people would be disenfranchised after the National Election Committee incorrectly deleted names from the voter list.
Mr. Sovann claimed many of those ballots would have added to the number of votes for the CNRP.
“It would have affected our voters. For example, commune chiefs and clerks are the ones who do the registration and who know who is who in the village, so they know everybody in the commune and who supports the CNRP,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng and Phorn Bopha)