Cambodia’s highest court on Friday ordered the country’s electoral body to release secured ballot information from more than a dozen polling stations to investigate claims by the opposition of irregularities in last month’s disputed elections.
Constitutional Council of Cambodia President Ek Sam Ol issued an urgent statement informing the National Election Committee (NEC) that it must open the ballot packages from a commune in Kratie province after reviewing complaints of voter fraud in the July 28 polls.
“The NEC must open the 13 packages from 13 polling stations in Svay Chhrum commune in Kratie province,” the statement read.
“The opening will be held in Phnom Penh’s NEC headquarters on Aug. 25 at 8:00 a.m. The CCC will send observers to monitor the process.”
The order follows the council’s review of complaints against preliminary results announced by the NEC awarding a victory to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People Party (CPP).
The results have been challenged by the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) which claims massive election irregularities, including one million voters delisted from the electoral rolls.
Local polls watchdog the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) had specifically challenged the number of National Assembly, or parliament, seats awarded to the CPP by the NEC based on poll results in Kratie province.
Preliminary results by the NEC support the CPP claim that it has won 68 of the 123 seats in the National Assembly, against 55 for the CNRP. Comfrel insists that the CNRP has won at least 56 seats, while the opposition says it took 63.
The election dispute has left Cambodia in a state of political paralysis and heightened tensions in the capital Phnom Penh where opposition supporters have warned of massive protests and the government has deployed troops and armored vehicles.
Opposition officials welcomed the Constitutional Council ‘s decision Friday, but urged the court to allow observers from the CNRP, as well as from independent Cambodian and international groups, to monitor the opening of the ballot information.
In a statement released Friday, the CNRP said that the opening of the secure packages should be a “transparent process” done in a way that will reassure voters and allow both parties to recognize the result.
Opposition spokesman Yim Sovann said the CNRP was demanding that the NEC open all ballot packages related to its complaints of election irregularities.
“Doing so will allow the people to have confidence in those results,” he said, adding however that the opening of the ballot packages is “just a small step,” and that many more irregularities require investigation.
NEC Secretary General Tep Nytha said all “relevant” parties will be invited to take part in the Aug. 25 opening of the ballot packages in Phnom Penh.
“We will invite parties’ representatives—especially the plaintiffs [in election complaints]—observers and members of the media to participate,” he said.
Hang Puthea, director of the local NGO Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections Cambodia (Nicfec), said it is “a good sign” that the Constitutional Council had ruled to open the Kratie commune ballot packages, but urged the NEC to open all packages linked to opposition complaints.
“In cases of suspicion [of ballot fraud], we must open all related packages according to the CNRP’s requests,” he said.
Meanwhile, rights groups on Friday strongly condemned authorities in Battambang city for their role in clashes with a group of residents taking part in a forum to express their opinions on Cambodia’s election process a day earlier.
Senior CNRP member Mu Sochua was ruffled in the melee on Thursday as police lines surrounded the compound to the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM) meeting, blocking local residents from entering. No one was seriously injured in the clash.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) said in a statement that authorities “cracked down” on the forum, preventing participants from entering the private home where it was taking place and claiming that the forum was illegal, as the organizer had not obtained permission.
But the group said that “no such authorization for the organization of public trainings and forums is required under Cambodian law” and called the action a “violation of the right of Cambodian citizens to freedom of assembly.”
“National authorities must ensure that local counterparts are aware of the laws in place and the rights of their constituents in order to avoid such incidents in the future,” CCHR Freedom of Expression Project Coordinator Ramana Sorn said.
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), Comfrel and Nicfec also condemned the action Friday, saying in a joint statement that the government should punish the police officers who obstructed forum participants.
Battambang police denied claims from Mu Sochua who, after the clash, had accused local authorities of bowing to pressure from the CPP to intimidate residents into staying away from the forum.
“Mu Sochua wants to politically exploit the incident,” provincial police department spokesman Ving Mony told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“She always accuses the CPP—this is nothing new.”
Ving Mony also denounced the statements from rights groups condemning the police action, reiterating claims that the forum was not permitted because organizers had not received prior authorization.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.