Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday slammed a call by a former leader of the now-dissolved opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) for voters to boycott the country’s upcoming general ballot, saying that it was a violation of electoral law.
Earlier, former CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who is living in self-imposed exile to avoid a string of convictions widely seen as politically motivated, reiterated a call he made last week, urging Cambodia’s voters to boycott the July 29 elections if the party is not allowed to participate.
In a four-minute video posted on his Facebook page on Friday, Sam Rainsy said that the CNRP, which was dissolved by the Supreme Court in November for its alleged role in a plot to topple Hun Sen’s government, is the only party fighting for democratic change in Cambodia, and that CNRP supporters and activists should stay away from the polls to refrain from legitimizing the election.
Hun Sen responded with a Facebook post of his own, saying that 21 political parties are in the process of registering for the election, and stressing the importance of voting in the polls, which he called the right of every citizen of a “multi-party liberal democracy.”
“Propagandizing citizens against voting violates the laws of the country, as stated in Article 142” of Cambodia’s Criminal Code, he added, without providing additional details.
In December, Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC)—the nation’s top electoral body—warned of 5-20 million-riel fines (U.S. $1,240-$4,950) and “other criminal punishment” for those “sowing distrust of the election” after RFA’s Khmer Service reported on low turnout for voter registration following the dissolution of the CNRP.
Political analyst Hang Vitou told RFA on Friday that Hun Sen was wrong to issue threats in response to calls for boycotting the election, saying that the country is in the midst of a political crisis that his government refuses to resolve.
He also questioned the legitimacy of Article 142, noting that “certain laws were pushed through by a single party”—a reference to CNRP lawmakers boycotting a vote on amendments to the country’s electoral laws they saw as unjust.
The CNRP received more than 3 million votes—accounting for nearly half of the country’s registered voters—in Cambodia’s 2013 general election, and enjoyed similar success in last year’s commune ballot, making it the only legitimate challenger to the CPP ahead of July.
Hun Sen’s recent crackdown on the opposition, as well as on NGOs and independent media, is widely seen as part of a bid to ensure that his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) remains in power for another term following July’s election and extends his 33-year rule of the country.
Also on Friday, the NEC kicked off a nationwide campaign aimed at getting voters out for the general election, despite concerns that it will be neither free nor fair without the participation of the CNRP, with question-and-answer sessions for hundreds of students in Takeo province.
The NEC also plans to air television programs to promote awareness of voting rights and what documents voters will need to bring with them to polling stations.
A teacher who joined one of the sessions told RFA on condition of anonymity that students mostly asked about whether the election would be legitimate without the main opposition party, and said the campaign had done little to convince him to vote in July.
He said that the government is better off allowing the CNRP to participate in the election, and to lift restrictions on NGOs and the media, if they want the public to go to the polls this summer.
Ny Chandaravuth, the head of the teacher’s association in Takeo, said most teachers had already decided to boycott the election, and that an NEC campaign would not change their minds.
“They’ve shut down the independent media in Cambodia, but most teachers and students are following the news [from those outlets] via Facebook and other social media,” he said.
“The NEC’s campaign simply suggests that they are frightened of the effect the government’s dissolution of the CNRP will have on the election. I don’t think this campaign will be effective.”
Korn Savang, an official with the Committee For Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), also suggested that the NEC’s campaign would do little to convince the public to vote, if they already planned to stay home on July 29.
“I think it is good for them to explain the details of the election process, but I don’t think it will change peoples’ minds,” he said.
Earlier this week, the United Nations’ Special Rapporteur to Cambodia Rhona Smith called on Hun Sen’s government to reinstate the CNRP, saying “no election can be genuine if the main opposition party is barred from taking part.”
Both the U.S. and EU have withdrawn donor support for Cambodia’s elections, citing government actions seen as limiting democracy in the country, including the banning of the CNRP and the arrest of Kem Sokha.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sarada Taing. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.