Election reflections: do we take ‘free’ and ‘fair’ too much for granted?

Democracy is something that those in the West view as integral to their way of living. Often held up as the epitome of ‘civilisation’, it is something that is urged on all countries around the globe by governments and human rights groups alike. Countries that do not hold elections or are accused of tampering with the democratic process can face international condemnation.

Speaking as part of a generation that seems increasingly disillusioned with what any political party has to offer, political sentiment in the UK can often appear mired in apathy. Party campaigns are met with cynicism, the days leading up to the election with increased frustration and a sense of disillusionment. Generally, at least in my limited experience, unless voters have a particular affiliation or specific interest they choose the candidate they feel is the best of a bad bunch.

Yet, despite all this, everyone I know is adamant that we should vote, even if just to exercise our ‘democratic right’. We all have a hazy understanding of the fact that in some way we are privileged to have this right and we feel obliged to act upon this. However, alongside this acknowledged right is another privilege that we appear to take for granted: the fact that our vote will be counted as part of a free and fair election.

Will one individual vote make a difference? In many instances, possibly not; but we accept our vote as free from manipulation and corruption as an inherent part of the process. Of course, this is as it should be, but I feel this weakens our appreciation for what others have to go through in their efforts to become a true democracy.

Deserted streets in Phnom Penh on the morning of the election

Deserted streets in Phnom Penh on the morning of the election

My experience of elections in the UK has been characterised if not by apathy, at least by the feeling of it bring somewhat routine. Work continues as normal, with each person’s visit to the polling station being approached in much the same manner as a trip to the dentist, fitted in around other commitments that day. Not so in Cambodia. The morning of Cambodia’s national election, I awoke to a quiet that was almost eerie. There was no bustling traffic or busy construction in the surrounding streets at 7am; instead, the area seemed deserted as everyone queued at the polls.

Indeed, the election has been the focus of the entire weekend, with many of Phnom Penh’s businesses closing so people can take off the three days many need to travel to their home province, vote, and return to the capital. What business in the UK would voluntarily shut up shop in order for staff to exercise their democratic right? Democracy is accepted as part of our way of life, but is this only because it does not inconvenience us?

Rallies in central Phnom Penh the week before the election

Rallies in central Phnom Penh the week before the election

The weeks leading up to Cambodia’s national election have been characterised by an energy rarely seen in European political campaigns. Daily political rallies in Phnom Penh clogged the streets with flag-weilding supporters on motorbikes. Loud music and flashing lights greet any passing Wat Botum Park in the evenings. When opposition leader Sam Rainsy returned from almost 4 years of self-imposed exile, he was greeted by crowds which were reportedly as large as 100,000. It is hard to imagine this many people celebrating the return of Labour Party leader Ed Miliband to the UK so jubilantly.

Whether they understand each party’s ideologies or not, there has at least been a feeling that people care about this election. Individual people, who are excited about the election for what it intrinsically represents. They care about their ability to vote.

A tuk-tuk drives past a polling station on the day of the election

A moto drives past a polling station on the day of the election

However, simply being able to vote is just the beginning, something that my previous automatic acceptance of what it takes to be democracy failed to fully appreciate. Behind the scenes in Cambodia, there are numerous reasons to question how free and how fair this election really is. In the weeks preceding the vote, there were allegations of villagers being coerced into declaring they will vote for the ruling party; reports of intimidation by police, commune chiefs and other powerful figures; and tales of students paid to attend political rallies. Most local media is controlled by the government, limiting the opportunities for opposition parties to share their messages with the country. Statistics published in the Phnom Penh Post showed that in many districts, there were more people registered to vote than were resident there, while on election day a number of people reported that they could not find their names on the voter list, despite having registered, or that others had already voted in their name. Just a day or so before the polls opened, there were fears that the ‘indelible’ ink used to identify those who have already cast their vote could be easily removed. There was also the vexed question of whether opposition leader Sam Rainsy should have been allowed to run as a candidate, having received a royal pardon at the 11th hour for a conviction that allegedly was politically motivated.

Reiterating that those in Cambodia face different challenges to those in countries such as the UK, one of the more sobering tales was of former garment factory workers who feared they would be unable to vote as they were still waiting to be paid the wages they were owed. As many had to travel back to their home province to vote, this would have been something they simply could not afford. They eventually received their wages just days before the election, but given the timing of such a payout, financed by the ruling party, the political motivations of this could feasibly be called into question.

While these are such vitally important details for those voting in Cambodia, none of these are issues that it would ever occur to me to question during an election in the UK, which leads me to wonder if our apathy towards politics has extended towards elements of human rights as well. Have we all forgotten the importance of an election being free and fair? Do we take our democracy – and all that democracy entails – too much for granted?

As the opposition now contest the outcome of the voting, witnessing the elections in Cambodia unfold has given me a newfound appreciation for the relative freedom I have enjoyed for most of my life. I am sure that many could enlighten me as to the ways in which those in Europe are still bound by constraints of one form or another. However, as I sat reading reports of angry voters torching cars on the evening of the election, I realised how grateful I am for the fact that in my home country I am free from the fear of coercion, manipulation or violence when I choose to cast my vote.

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