Cambodia’s leading opposition party said Thursday that it would boycott general elections in 2013 if the government does not reform the electoral process and refuses to allow its president to return to the country where he has been barred from running on the grounds of his criminal conviction.
The country’s National Election Committee (NEC), which critics say lacks independence from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), removed exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy as a voter and disallowed him from standing as a candidate in next year’s elections in a ruling earlier this month.
The decision was made on the grounds that Sam Rainsy was convicted on charges of incitement and damaging property while leading a 2009 Vietnam border protest, among other crimes—charges he denies and says are politically motivated.
Yim Sovann, spokesman for the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and one of the founders of Sam Rainsy’s National Rescue Party (NRP), said the NEC ruling was part of a plan to secure a win for the CPP in next year’s elections.
The NRP is a united opposition coalition, consisting of the SRP and the Human Rights Party (HRP), aimed at challenging Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP in next year’s polls.
“The NRP will boycott if Sam Rainsy can't come to Cambodia [to compete in the elections]," Yim Sovann said, referring to the 11-year jail sentence the opposition leader faces if he returns from his self-imposed exile in Paris.
“[The boycott would aim] to fight for NEC reform from the top to the local-level and to allow Sam Rainsy’s return.”
The NEC has been accused by rights groups and opposition parties of bias toward the CPP. They have called for independent members on the committee, whose headquarters is situated in the Ministry of the Interior compound.
A number of opposition candidates have said that the 2013 election would not be regarded as free and fair if there is no reform of the NEC and if Sam Rainsy is not permitted to participate in the polls.
Last week, during the first visit by a sitting U.S. president to Cambodia, Barack Obama spoke with Hun Sen about the need for measures to ensure that the country’s general elections are contested fairly.
The 60-year-old Hun Sen has held power since 1985 and has said he has no plans to step down until the age of 90.
Elections to ‘proceed’
NEC Secretary General Tep Nytha said the committee will “do its best” to organize a free and fair election for 2013.
He said the NEC will continue to hold the polls “as scheduled,” regardless of the NRP threat of boycott.
“If the two merged parties [SRP and HRP] don’t join the election, it is their right to do so. But the election will proceed as scheduled and all political parties will have the right to participate,” he said.
The NEC recently announced that it will accept the registration of political parties for the 2013 general elections from March-April next year.
Six political parties have also registered to monitor the voting registration process.
Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) Director Koul Panha underscored the importance of allowing Sam Rainsy to return home to participate in the election.
“In order to make this election more meaningful and just, Sam Rainsy must be present,” he said.
On Wednesday, Sam Rainsy accused Cambodia’s election officials of practicing double standards by banning him from the elections based on the charges against him, saying that others convicted of crimes, including prominent criminals, have not faced the same restrictions.
In a statement, the NRP said that by sidelining Sam Rainsy, Hun Sen is trying to avoid a “fair fight” in the July 2013 election.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.