As Count Ticks Upward, Parties Spin Competing Narratives

With official tallies from Sunday’s commune elections slowed by internet hiccups, both major political parties provided similar results but different stories on Monday on which had won a vote that drew a record 7 million Cambodians to the polls—300,000 more than had been previously reported by the National Election Committee (NEC).

NEC spokesman Hang Puthea attributed delays in releasing preliminary results to spotty internet at some of the 22,148 polling stations, saying it could not declare the results for an entire commune if it had not certified results from every station.

While Mr. Puthea said he hoped to have the results finalized on Monday, both major parties seemed to have already reached their own conclusions.

CNRP estimates, which are based on data gathered by its poll monitors, have the party winning between 482 and 486 commune chief seats out of the 1,646 spots up for grabs and 46 percent of the popular vote, compared to 51 percent for the CPP, said Prince Sisowath Thomico, who sits on the CNRP’s steering committee.

“It’s a very important step to winning the next election,” he said on Monday, citing the opposition taking the majority of commune chief slots in Phnom Penh as well as Siem Reap and Kompong Cham provinces.

Prime Minister Hun Sen and CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told similar success stories on Monday.

Responding to critics who said the CPP lost the election, the polo-clad prime minister posted unsourced and unofficial election results on Facebook on Monday morning alongside photographs of a golf outing.

Votes were being counted in Phnom Penh on Sunday’s Commune Election 2017. (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)

“The CPP’s votes increased compared to the 2013 [national] election and it’s also higher than other political parties,” he wrote.

The ruling party won more than 51 percent of 6.7 million votes cast and added more than 300,000 votes to its 2013 election count, he wrote, citing outdated total turnout numbers that were updated in an NEC statement dated late Sunday night to more than 7 million.

The prime minister also claimed victory in the CNRP’s failure to control the Senate, a largely symbolic body elected mostly by commune councilors whose president acts as head of state if the king becomes seriously ill.

Mr. Eysan gave similar figures to his boss as well as Prince Thomico on Bayon radio on Monday, saying his party had won 1,158 commune chief seats compared to 487 spots for the opposition—enough to win the election, he claimed.

CNRP President Kem Sokha, who predicted during the two-week campaign period that the opposition would win 60 percent of the popular vote, said in a speech at the party headquarters in Phnom Penh on Monday that his party won “almost 500 communes” compared to the 40 won between its two composite parties in the 2012 commune elections.

That improvement “proves that the CNRP has received a victory for the next stage,” he said.

A coalition of civil society organizations that dubbed themselves the “Situation Room” will present their own results, which are based on independent monitors, at a news conference this morning, the group said.

Nearly 9 out of 10 registered voters cast their ballots on Sunday, according to the updated NEC turnout data—a revision Sam Kuntheamy, head of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, attributed to civic engagement rather than foul play.

“Actually, I’m happy to see high turnout,” Mr. Kuntheamy said.

The close outcome of the popular vote would be helpful for voters insofar as it would encourage major political parties to pay more attention to their needs, said Ou Virak, head of the Future Forum think tank.

“My concern for the CPP is that they read the results of this election wrongly,” he said.

The party’s deep local networks and incumbent advantage gave it a significant edge over the opposition in commune elections, according to Mr. Virak, making the party’s boasts of sweeping victory on Monday seem like either political posturing or naivety.

“The fact that they’re losing on such a scale should be a wakeup call,” he said, predicting the CPP would “play more politics” with refined messaging and increased pressure on the opposition.

But the CNRP had failed to fully capitalize on its “actually amazing” Election Day performance because it set expectations so high, Mr. Virak said. The party would have been better served by framing the elections as a close race, he said.

Sunday’s vote “should be seen as a huge victory for the opposition given all the challenges they had to overcome,” he said.

Prince Thomico defended Mr. Sokha’s forecast, claiming the party raised the stakes for supporters. He described the election as a “win-win” by virtue of the CNRP’s pickups and the CPP’s sustained majority of commune seats and votes.

“I think it’s enough to reassure the people of Cambodia that there will be no war,” he said, referring to threats from Mr. Hun Sen and other CPP leaders that an opposition victory would unleash violence.

“Because if everyone wins, there will be no war.”

(Additional reporting by Ben Sokhean)

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