Cambodia Opposition Slams Commune Elections as Neither Free Nor Fair

cambodia-hun-sen-bun-rany-june-2017-crop.jpg Prime Minister Hun Sen and his wife Bun Rany dip their fingers in indelible ink after casting their ballots at a polling station in Kandal province's Takhmao city, June 4, 2017.

UPDATED at 10:21 A.M. on 2017-06-27

Cambodia’s opposition party on Monday praised improvements in the country’s electoral process a day after the release of official results from a commune ballot held earlier this month, but said a number of factors unfairly tipped the vote in favor of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party.

Slightly more than 7 million Cambodians, or more than 90 percent of registered voters, turned out for commune council polls on June 4, a record turnout in a test of public opinion ahead of 2018 general elections.

According to official results released Sunday by the National Election Committee (NEC)—the nation’s top electoral body—the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won 21 provinces, while the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) won the capital Phnom Penh, as well as Siem Reap, Kompong Cham, and Kompong Thom provinces.

The CPP secured 1,156 of 1,646 commune/sangkat chief posts, the CNRP won 489 and one commune leader post went to the Khmer National United Party, the NEC said. The CPP received nearly 51 percent of all votes and the CNRP received nearly 44 percent, while the rest went to 10 other parties.

The NEC called the election “a great success for Cambodian citizens” that had helped the nation progress “in accordance with the principle of pluralist liberal democracy,” and “proceeded smoothly and successfully with commendations and acceptability from all stakeholders.”

Following the release of the official results on Sunday, the CPP issued a statement declaring its acceptance of the NEC’s findings, which it said “stemmed from a genuinely free and fair election … in accordance with the constitution and statutes of the Kingdom of Cambodia under a neutral, free and safe political environment.”

Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs also welcomed the results Sunday, saying in a statement that “the fundamental rules of democracy and transparency have been widely respected at every stage of this long process … [while] a few minor problems that have been addressed and corrected cannot be regarded as major obstacles to congratulate Cambodia for the successful organization of this free and fair election.”

Election flaws

On Monday, the CNRP released a statement noting improvements in voter lists, voter registration, and candidate lists, but slamming the commune ballot as having “failed to satisfy the principles of free and fair elections.”

Ahead of the election, the opposition said, former CNRP president Sam Rainsy was pressured and banned from returning to Cambodia in connection with what has been called a politically motivated conviction; courts were used to persecute CNRP lawmakers, supporters and a variety of other stakeholders; and government officials—including Hun Sen—had threatened civil war should the CPP lose the vote.

During the two-week election campaign period which began May 20, the opposition was discriminated against for campaign event locations, CPP-friendly media were given preferential treatment, civil servants were obligated to campaign for the ruling party, and the CPP engaged in “vote buying,” it said.

The CNRP said that on election day, more than one million Cambodians working overseas were denied the right to vote because the government did not provide them the means to do so, while factory employees were not given time off from their jobs to submit their ballots.

On the day of the vote count, military personnel were present and counting took place behind closed doors at some polling stations, the opposition said, while the NEC rejected a CNRP request for a vote recount, despite electoral laws that allow for recounts when election results differ by at least 0.5 percent.

‘Significant limitations’

The CNRP’s assessment of the commune polls followed one by the Situation Room group of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs)—including the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), Licadho, and Adhoc—on Saturday, which applauded improved election management, but noted significant restrictions on political freedom and limits to fairness.

“The Situation Room has found that the election process has been significantly improved and made more transparent than before, in terms of voter registration and voter list management, candidate registration, polling and counting process, and the announcement of electoral results,” the group said in a statement.

But it added that the conduct of the election campaign and electoral dispute resolution “need to be improved” and noted that “significant irregularities or issues occurred prior to the election which established a context that negatively impacted the fairness of the vote.”

Among those factors, the statement said, were an environment of political suppression, a lack of transparency and inequities in campaign finance, misuse of state resources, an “unequal playing field,” the lack of an independent judiciary, and the intimidation of civil society by security officials.

“These problems combined to result in significant limitations on the quality of the poll, such that elections in Cambodia cannot yet be considered fully free and fair,” the Situation Room said, calling for measures to resolve the issues ahead of next year’s general elections.

‘Never satisfied’

Speaking during a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh on Monday, Hun Sen slammed the election’s detractors and suggested they would only be happy if the CPP lost.

“For the Cambodian People’s Party, we have already declared that we accept the results, and we consider the election free and fair,” he said.

“On the contrary, a political party and the so-called Situation Room of civil society organizations consider it otherwise. But I think they would only call [an election] free if they could have free access to the Prime Minister’s house to kill him right on the spot.”

Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 30 years, said the country’s opposition is “never satisfied” with election results.

“Only if they could take control of the Peace Palace would they consider the election free and fair,” he said, referring to the Office of the Prime Minister of Cambodia in Phnom Penh.

“They have failed to achieve their plan to take hold of the Senate. That’s why they consider the election neither fair nor free.”

Reported by Leng Maly for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story erroneously stated that 89.52 percent of registered voters turned out for the commune election, the CPP won 22 provinces, and the CNRP won the city of Siem Reap.

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