UPDATED at 10:20 A.M. on 2017-05-22
Opposition parties and civil society groups in Cambodia objected on Friday to what they consider last-minute rules issued by the country’s election committee to reduce political campaigning to two days, keep campaigners off main roadways, and maintain public order during election rallies in the run-up to next month’s commune elections.
The National Election Committee (NEC), which oversees national elections in Cambodia, has limited public rallies to two days during a 14-day election campaign period, and said that the remaining time should be used for normal political campaign activities. It has also restricted the number of campaigners involved in public activities, such as distributing leaflets, and the number of vehicles they can use during this time.
Opposition parties and civil society groups interpreted the moves as further restrictions on their right to hold public rallies during the official campaign period from May 20 to June 2 before commune elections on June 4.
Meng Sopheary, head of the Election and Legislative Affairs Department of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), said the instructions issued by the NEC, which oversees the country’s national elections, restrict political parties’ ability to disseminate their messages.
She raised questions about why the NEC, a supposedly independent body, was putting in place various restrictions and said that the move likely came as a result of the CNRP’s growing popularity.
“For the CNRP, we want the campaign rally to be held as widely as possible to send our political messages to the people,” she said. “We want the people to join us, and our supporters also want to take part in the rally to show that the CNRP’s campaign can attract many [people]. Such limitations don’t allow us to stage activities on a grand scale.”
Observers say the CNRP—one of 12 political parties competing for 1,646 commune council seats—could give the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) a run for its money in the June polls, foreshadowing a possible CNRP win in national elections scheduled for 2018.
Thorn Chantha, deputy secretary-general of the royalist Funcinpec party, said the NEC’s instructions for holding campaign rallies do not provide complete explanations, and he is concerned that campaigners may interpret the rules differently.
Nevertheless, CPP headquarters official Chhao Vanndeth agrees with the NEC’s instructions, arguing that the body’s regulations are based on reason and the law.
“The CPP can accept all the NEC instructions in addition to [election campaign] laws and directives,” he said. “We don’t have any problems with them. The CPP will implement and abide by the NEC’s instructions.”
Ensuring public order
Tep Nitha, the NEC’s secretary general, said the body has put in place what others consider to be restrictions and procedures for the commune elections to ensure public security and order to create a sound environment for political parties to disseminate their messages to voters.
“If the political campaigns were held in a disorderly manner, and any party could do whatever it wanted, then all of society would encounter a deadlock," he said.
He cited the example of campaigning at public markets, saying that if the NEC allowed parties to use loudspeakers everywhere, it would affect merchants’ ability to sell their goods because people would stay away.
Meanwhile, authorities in the capital Phnom Penh, where the largest rallies are held, have instructed representatives of six political parties with candidates up for election not to gather in major public parks and have banned rallies from being held along the city’s main boulevards.
The municipal authorities also informed the parties to notify them in advance if they distribute campaign material in public markets.
Sin Tithseyha, an investigation official with the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), said this is a further restriction imposed on political parties during the campaign period.
He also said the NEC should not prohibit political parties from holding campaign rallies at key gathering places because the agency had already reduced the campaign period to 14 days.
The NEC said it will impose fines ranging from 5 million riels (U.S. $1,200) to 30 million riels (U.S. $ 7,400) on political parties that breach the procedures in accordance with the commune/sangkat (administrative division) election laws and the law on the election of members of parliament.
CNRP to begin rally
Amid criticism of the NEC’s move by opposition parties, the CNRP said it will kick off its campaign rally Saturday along roads designated by municipal authorities in Phnom Penh.
Morn Phalla, the CNRP’s executive committee chairman in the capital, said the party agreed to use diverted roadways per the NEC’s instructions to avoid traffic congestion.
The regulation also does not affect the roads along which the CNRP had chosen to hold its campaign rally, he added.
“That is neither a strict measure, nor does it pose any major problem because we can change directions according to the map,” he said, referring to a map issued by the NEC that designates roads in Phnom Penh where campaign rallies cannot be held.
The CNRP will begin the rally at its headquarters near Wat Chak Angre Krom and move through major boulevards in the capital, including National Road No. 2, the Preah Monivong Bridge, Preah Monivong Blvd., and Preah Sihanouk Blvd., until it arrives at Chumpou Voan market on the outskirts of town.
CNRP president Kem Sokha will participate in the rally on Saturday.
The CPP, however, will not hold any major rallies across communes on the first day of the campaign period, because the law only allows parties to hold a rally in each individual commune/sangkat, said CPP lawmaker and spokesman Sok Ey San. Instead, the party will hold a meeting at each of its commune offices.
The CPP will hold another meeting at each commune/sangkat party office on the second day, he said.
During the remaining 12 days of the campaign period, the party may hold rallies inside communes/sangkats to distribute leaflets about its political platform, he said.
“All communes/sangkats will hold their own meetings, [and] each commune will have its own rally,” Sok Ey San said.
The CPP will also acknowledge May 20 as the date of remembrance of the murderous Khmer Rouge regime that ruled the country from 1975 to 1979.
Reported by Sonorng Khe and Vanndeth Van for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.
Correction: A previous version of this story erroneously listed the number of days in the official campaign period as 12 instead of 14.