Cambodia is on the road to authoritarianism and its political processes are backsliding, an election monitoring group said Tuesday ahead of a national election in July which the opposition says will not be free and fair.
The Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel) warned in its annual report that Cambodia’s democracy is “increasingly fragile” and that the electoral process is excluding opposition and dissenting voices ahead of the election.
With the country under dominant control of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the political process “showed trends towards authoritarianism,” Comfrel said.
Comfrel Director Koul Panha warned that the CPP’s domination would mar the vote, saying court officials, the armed forces, and the police are under the party’s control and the civil service lacks impartiality and independence.
“I am worried about this political trend that is leading the country to a fragile democratic process. Cambodia is heading toward a one-party state,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“This means that military, police, and judicial officers will not be impartial during the elections.”
Reforms not made
Koul Panha said Comfrel had released the report with the hope that the government will institute reforms to protect respect for the law and ensure a system of checks and balances between the branches of government.
The government has been ignoring recommended reforms to the electoral system, including changes aimed at making the National Election Committee independent, and existing electoral laws have not been implemented properly, Comfrel said.
Instead, the political process in the country has suffered “further backlashes” over the past year, it said, with the government following in a pattern of limiting political participation, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and access to media, it said.
In an immediate reaction, Hun Sen’s government blasted the Comfrel report Tuesday.
Cambodia’s Council of Ministers Spokesman Phay Siphan accused Comfrel of being biased against the government in order to please foreign donor agencies.
“This [organization’s annual] report has a tendency of pressuring the government,” he said. “Comfrel exists through its donors, but the government is elected.”
He said there were reports that showed most Cambodians believe the country is moving in the right direction, citing a 2011 opinion poll conducted by the U.S. government-funded International Republican Institute.
Comfrel’s report also said that the government had ignored international appeals to allow exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy to return to the country to participate in the upcoming election.
Sam Rainsy, who is living in France after being convicted of offenses linked to a protest over border demarcation with Vietnam in a case he says is politically motivated, faces a 12-year prison sentence if he returns to Cambodia.
Sam Rainsy has said he intends to return to Cambodia to challenge Hun Sen in the July vote as head of the National Rescue Party, a new coalition between his Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and the Human Rights Party (HRP).
Koul Panha said that the government had put pressure on the judiciary to be biased against Sam Rainsy, as well as against imprisoned independent radio station director and political dissident Mam Sonando.
Sam Rainsy Party Spokesman Yim Sovann again appealed to the government to allow Sam Rainsy to participate in the vote.
“The government is led by the ruling party and must … be brave enough to organize a free and fair vote with Sam Rainsy present during the election,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
He said Cambodians are intimidated into supporting the government through restrictions on freedom of expression, rights abuses, and land disputes.
He said Hun Sen’s government serves the interests of the country’s elite, at the risk of the country’s wellbeing.
“We are facing the loss of foreign aid and investment, and Cambodia will face an economic crisis. In the end the people will be miserable,” he said, adding that the government had failed to comply with recommendations for reform from the international community.
Opposition members have complained that the CPP has held an unfair advantage in the campaign process for the vote and about the lack of independence of the National Election Committee.
In 2012’s commune-level polls, the CPP scored a landslide victory despite complaints by opposition members and election monitors of voter intimidation and other irregularities.
The SRP won 22 commune council chief positions in the election while the HRP won 18. The SRP holds 26 seats in the National Assembly, or parliament, compared to three HRP seats. By contrast, the CPP won an estimated 1,592 of 1,633 commune chief positions and holds 90 of 123 National Assembly seats.
Experts have said that the united parties will face difficulty in next year’s election without Sam Rainsy heading the election campaign.
Reported by Vann Vicha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.