PHNOM PENH - When the voter turnout for Cambodia's general election crossed the 80 per cent mark on Sunday (July 29), the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) of caretaker prime minister Hun Sen wasted no time wielding the figure in its war of narratives against opposition exiles who had called for a boycott.
"The high voter turnout rate clearly illustrates the enthusiasm and political rights of the Cambodian people in strengthening a multi-party democracy," the party's central committee declared in a statement, brushing aside criticism that the 19 other political parties in the race were miniscule compared to CPP, and also miniscule compared to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) that was dissolved by a court ruling in November.
Yet preliminary results made public by the National Election Committee on Monday gave some backing to critics' argument that many Cambodians had been unwilling voters who did so out of fear of penalties awaiting those who did not have an index finger stained with anti-fraud ink.
With results from only 10 voting stations out of the 22,967 nationwide yet to be released at 4pm local time (5pm Singapore time) on Monday, invalid votes accounted for 8.6 per cent of votes cast, based on The Straits Times' calculations. The percentage of these invalid votes, which numbered more than 590,000 nationwide, ranged from 4.2 per cent in Kep province to 14.5 per cent in the capital Phnom Penh.
Pictures of invalid votes circulating on social media - which The Straits Times could not verify - show ballot sheets that had been left blank, or had all options crossed out, or with the letters "CNRP" written clearly on it.
The number of invalid votes dwarfed the number of votes received by the best-performing opposition party, Funcinpec. And an invalid vote rate of 8.6 per cent is a big jump from the 1.88 per cent recorded in Cambodia's commune election last year and the 1.6 per cent recorded in the 2013 general election, where the CNRP gave the ruling CPP a shock run for its money. This is a sign of frustrated rather than rookie voters.
"People don't have any choice to vote, so they decide not to choose any party," says political blogger Noan Sereiboth. "They cannot boycott, because they are afraid it will affect their business or affect their earnings. If they don't have ink on their fingers, they are afraid something will happen to them."
Voting is not mandatory in Cambodia, but the establishment appeared to have moved mountains to boost voter participation on Sunday. Around the region, urban and foreign-based labourers are typically neglected during elections and forced to return home at their own expense to vote.
In this election, Cambodia's Labour Ministry - citing a request by the election body - ordered factories and businesses to give workers three days off on full pay to return home to vote. Critics claim that workers given such allowances were also given veiled threats should they return to work with clean fingers.
Yet the 8.6 per cent figure sends a rather half-hearted message, say some analysts.
"A figure below 10 per cent doesn't show that the opposition voice is strong," says ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute visiting scholar Chheang Vannarith. "It's not overwhelming."
In fact, it is likely that the bulk of CNRP supporters who turned up on Sunday cast their ballot for another party instead. The number of invalid votes on Sunday - which stands at around 597,000 - is just a fraction of the almost three million votes garnered by the CNRP in the 2013 election.
But the opposition parties will likely leave empty-handed. Formal election results are not expected to be released until August but a CPP spokesman on Monday told Reuters the party had made a clean sweep of all 125 seats in Parliament.
CNRP exiles, who held a press conference in Jakarta on Monday, condemned the election and declared that "deals and accords signed as of today by the Cambodia's de facto regime will have no legal validity and will be revised by the future democratic government of Cambodia".
But CNRP vice-president Mu Sochua also said it was not asking supporters to take to the streets. "Change without bloodshed," she stressed, wary of the violence that has punctuated the country's political history. "It has to be peaceful."
Both the United States and European Union have declared that the election did not represent the will of the people. Washington added on Sunday that it would consider “significant expansion of visa restrictions” on key political figures.
Yet even opposition politicians concede that this will do little to sway Mr Hun Sen and his colleagues.
The scattering of votes between spoilt ballots and a spread of parties in this election may well have raised the chances of the opposition being left in the political wilderness.