June 8, 2017
Having just concluded an election cycle in Nova Scotia on Tuesday, I was struck by the notice I received this morning from Global Affairs Canada, sent to Canadian travellers in Cambodia – “Dear Canadians, local elections will be held across the country on June 4, 2017. Political tensions are likely to rise ahead, during or after the elections. Expect an increased police presence. Avoid large gatherings and demonstrations, monitor local media and follow the advice of local authorities.” The notice goes on to list several items to keep on hand, as though in preparation for an impending disaster:
My husband and I were in Cambodia just 5 weeks ago to visit Angkor Wat and the surrounding temples, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Our visit was truly an amazing experience. The people are lovely and welcoming, the food is delicious, and the temples are almost other-worldly.
We knew local elections were coming from the posters and billboards everywhere. We spoke quite a lot about the political situation with our guide who is strongly opposed to the current government, which has been in power since 1985 despite being a parliamentary constitutional monarchy with a reigning king. Corruption is rampant and everywhere. There are large blue and white signs around the fence of the electricity company in Phnom Penh that read “Say YES to transparency. Say NO to corruption.” Important to understand is that Cambodia is the poorest of the 10 southeast Asian countries, with nearly 2.7 million of its 15 million people living on less than $1.20 per day.
I have spent the past month immersed in an election campaign. Despite the convenience of a variety of voting options, I heard people tell me at the door that they had never voted and didn’t intend to vote this time. We had numerous complaints about lengthy line-ups and inefficiencies at the returning office and polling stations and people walked away because they didn’t want to wait. We have high expectations of our electoral system. We want it to be transparent, fair, efficient and easy to navigate. And, for the most part, it is all of those things.
Democracy is fragile, both in Canada and Cambodia. By it’s very nature, democracy is dependent on voter participation. Like Canada and Nova Scotia, Cambodia has had declining voter participation but for different reasons. Corruption, disenfranchisement and human rights abuses prevent Cambodians from voting with little or no recourse. Only 54% of Nova Scotians chose to exercise their democratic right in Tuesday’s election, a decline of 4% from 2013. Just what is causing our declining voter participation is something of a mystery. We blame it on the politicians, the school system, young people, socio-economic issues, and a myriad of other reasons but do we really know?
In Canada, we are fortunate to live in one of the most stable and mature democracies in the world. It’s time we put some effort into re-energizing the electoral process to ensure that our democracy stays strong and healthy.