Lawyers for Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who returns home from self-exile in France this week after gaining a royal pardon, are studying various legal provisions through which he could become a last minute candidate in the July 28 general elections.
But Prime Minister Hun Sen appears to be holding the key to a quick resolution to the issue, as the registration of candidates for the polls has been closed and Sam Rainsy's name removed from the electoral register before he received his pardon last Friday.
Sam Rainsy, the 64-year-old head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was disqualified as a member of the National Assembly, the country's parliament, in March 2011 following his conviction for various politicized offenses which he said were part of a campaign of persecution by Hun Sen.
Following international criticism, Hun Sen advised King Norodom Sihamoni last Friday to pardon Sam Rainsy and scrap a 11-year jail sentence that had been meted out to him, allowing the politician to return home a free man. Sam Rainsy is scheduled to return on Friday.
“If Sam Rainsy can’t participate in the election, it is not a free and fair election,” CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann told RFA's Khmer Service, saying a battery of lawyers from the party is studying the election laws and parliament rules in a bid to register Sam Rainsy as a candidate.
He did not specify any law that they are looking into to push for Sam Rainsy's candidacy.
He said that as Sam Rainsy had already been pardoned and cleared of any offences, he should be allowed to re-register as a voter and allowed to contest in the elections, in which Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) is widely expected to win and be returned to power.
Sam Rainsy’s "immunity" from prosecution and other "privileges" should be restored, Yim Sovann said.
“We are studying all the relevant laws [and] there is a way to get out of this deadlock,” he said.
“If the ruling party has political will, we can do that,” Yim Sovann said.
The election laws say that a prospective candidate must first be eligible to vote.
As Sam Rainsy has been removed fom the voters' register, it remains unclear whether he could be reinstated as a voter and a lawmaker as his offences have been annulled through a royal pardon.
Hun Sen could still use his party's overwhelming majority in parliament to amend the election law and make an exception for Sam Rainsy, some experts said.
Tep Nytha, secretary of the National Election Committee, the body that manages the country's elections, said last week that Sam Rainsy's name "has already been deleted from the voting list” and "he can’t run for the election."
"I don’t know how to fix this because everything must be in accordance with the law,” he had said.
Even if Sam Rainsy crosses the legal hurdle, someone from his party has to withdraw as a candidate in a certain constituency to allow him to contest for a parliament seat, the experts said.
Puthea Hang, director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC), an election watchdog group, said that "full national reconciliation" could only be achieved if the Cambodian authorities allow Sam Rainsy to contest in the elections.
“We have to amend the laws or the National Election Committee can add some provisions to its existing rules to allow Sam Rainsy to participate in the election. They [the government] can do as they wish,” Puthea Hang said.
“[Without Sam Rainsy's participation] it is not full national reconciliation yet.”
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said he did not want to discuss aspects of the law in relation to Sam Rainsy's case, saying the politician himself should study the laws to look into the possibility of his contesting in the elections.
“His Excellency Sam Rainsy must hire a good lawyer to work according to the law,” he said.
The U.N. Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi, also suggested Tuesday that Hun Sen pave the way for Sam Rainsy to run in the elections.
He said while the royal pardon granted to Sam Rainsy was an important step towards reconciliation, it was hoped that Hun Sen's government "will take the necessary action" in order to allow the opposition leader "to play a full part in the national politics of Cambodia.”
Subedi had previously stressed the importance of a level playing field for all political parties to compete on an equal footing, and had called for a solution to allow Rainsy to play a full role in Cambodian politics.
“Today I applaud the Royal Government of Cambodia for having taken this important step towards reconciliation, which is in the interests of stronger and deeper democratization of Cambodia,” he said in a statement.
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Parameswaran Ponnudurai.