Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen is in breach of the country’s electoral laws by urging people to vote for him in an upcoming general ballot, election observers said Thursday, because he is rallying for his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) outside of the official campaign period.
Hun Sen has called for Cambodians to support him at the July 29 polls at nearly every public appearance he has made in recent weeks—including while speaking at events for factory workers, students, and civil servants—despite a law which only allows campaigning between July 7 and 27.
Korn Savang, senior election observer for the Committee on Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), told RFA’s Khmer Service it is illegal for Hun Sen to “abuse the role of public servant to benefit one’s own political party” by campaigning during the appearances.
“When the prime minister is advocating for people to vote for him and his party outside of the electoral campaign period, he is abusing his title and misappropriating state resources for his own political gain.”
Comfrel, along with fellow electoral watchdog Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC), have said that they will not participate in July’s election as monitors following the banning of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) by Cambodia’s Supreme Court in November for allegedly plotting to overthrow the government.
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 crackdown on the opposition in recent months is widely seen as part of a bid to ensure his party stays in power after the vote.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay echoed Korn Savang’s concerns, but said he was not surprised that Hun Sen does not face legal trouble for campaigning outside of the official period, as Cambodia’s courts and the National Election Committee (NEC)—the nation’s top electoral body—lack independence.
“This is when the National Election Committee, which is expected to be neutral, should step in and introduce some sanctions against him and other individuals who breach this rule,” he said.
But Dim Sovannarom, a spokesperson for the NEC, said that the committee is only empowered to act “during the electoral campaign period.”
“The NEC is a technical body that abides by the electoral law, and the law stipulates that the NEC’s jurisdiction only kicks in during the electoral campaign period, which runs from July 7-27,” he said.
“Outside of that period, the NEC has no authority on the matter. The NEC just follows the law. We do not have any other options.”
Yem Ponhearith, a spokesperson for the CNRP, told RFA that Hun Sen and other government officials act in violation of the laws on campaigning “during every election … yet the NEC has never taken action against them.”
“It is illegal for Hun Sen to call on people to vote for him and his political party in his capacity as the prime minister,” he said.
“The prime minister must behave like one—he represents the whole country, not just his party. Every time he starts calling for people to vote for him and his party in his capacity as the prime minister, he enters into the electoral campaign too soon. It’s not right.”
Hun Sen began urging Cambodians to vote for him in the upcoming election as early as December, when he told several thousand factory workers in the capital Phnom Penh that he hoped that they and their families would “vote for the CPP and for me, so that I can continue to rule this country.”
“This is not an election campaign,” the prime minister—who has led Cambodia for more than three decades—said at the time, adding that “no one can ban me from saying this, and asking for people to vote for me is not wrong.”
Meanwhile, as of Thursday, a total of eight political parties have been accepted by the NEC to participate in July’s election, after the committee extended the period for parties to register beyond the original May 14 deadline.
The eight parties recognized by the NEC are the CPP, the royalist Funcinpec Party, the Cambodian Youth Party (CYP), the Khmer National United Party (KNUP), the Khmer National Party of Cambodia (KNPC), the Grassroots Democracy Party (GDP), the New Light Party (NLP), and the One Khmer Party (OKP).
Of the eight parties, only the CPP and Funcinpec Party currently hold seats in the National Assembly, or parliament, and ran in the last general election of 2013. The other parties are largely considered government-aligned or too insignificant to garner many votes.
On May 14, only four parties had been recognized by the NEC, while sixteen others were being vetted by the committee, prompting it to extend the registration deadline to May 19. Nearly 8.4 million people have registered to vote in the July election.
On Thursday, Dim Sovannarom mocked Comfrel and Nicfec in response to their decisions earlier this week to abstain from election monitoring, calling them “tiny NGOs” whose absence will do little to affect the ballot.
“Higher education associations” based in all of Cambodia’s 25 provinces will send a total of 2,000 members to observe the elections, he added.
CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan also slammed the electoral watchdogs on Thursday, saying that by deciding not to participate, they had “waived their right to comment, predict, analyze, and recommend anything in relation to the vote.”
In an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service in early April, Comfrel director Koul Panha, who fled Cambodia last year after authorities disbanded the Comfrel-led Situation Room cluster of election monitoring NGOs, questioned the legitimacy of the July 29 election in the absence of the CNRP.
Koul Panha had said Comfrel would wait until the May 14 deadline for political parties to register before deciding whether it would participate as a monitor in the upcoming vote, and also urged would-be international observers to be aware of the political situation in Cambodia before accepting an invitation from NEC—the country’s official electoral body—to do the same.
US weighs in
Amid Hun Sen’s crackdown on the political opposition, both the U.S. and EU have withdrawn donor support for Cambodia’s elections, citing government actions seen as limiting democracy in the country.
In a statement on Thursday, U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert decried the Cambodian government’s decision to prohibit the CNRP from participating in the national elections, saying it would prevent “millions of Cambodian voters from exercising their democratic right to vote for candidates of their choice” and had “[called] into question the integrity of the electoral process.”
“We urge the Cambodian government to reinstate CNRP candidates immediately,” she said.
Nauert also noted that the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention had recently concluded that CNRP President Kem Sokha’s imprisonment, following his arrest in September last year on charges of treason, is “arbitrary,” and said that the State Department was renewing its call for his “immediate release.”
Also on Thursday, Florida Congressman Ted Yoho, the chairman of the House of Representatives Committee on Foreign Affairs’ Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, introduced to U.S. Congress his new draft bill known as the Cambodia Democracy Act of 2018, which he has said aims to punish Cambodia over the government’s recent restrictions on the country’s democratic process.
“We must send a signal to Hun Sen and his CPP cronies that they cannot deny the freedoms that the Cambodian people yearn for and deserve,” he said, while announcing the bill on the House floor.
In a statement last week, Yoho said the legislation would “push back against the Hun Sen regime’s undermining of democracy and related human rights abuses by applying financial sanctions to the figures who carry out this despicable agenda and codifying the [U.S. President Donald Trump] Administration’s existing visa restrictions for these individuals.”
The CPP has countered that Yoho’s Cambodia Democracy Act was a “violation of Cambodia’s sovereignty.”
Reported by RFA’s Kher Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.