Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen has spent millions of U.S. dollars of the national budget on handouts to garment workers at rallies, a government spokesman confirmed Friday, in what critics are calling illegal campaigning ahead of the country’s general election later this month.
According to local media reports, Hun Sen has met with garment workers 49 times since August last year, and has distributed 20,000 riels (U.S. $5) to each of the nearly 700,000 workers who have attended the events, for a total of around 14 billion riels (U.S. $3.5 million) spent.
During the meetings, the prime minister suggested that the workers support his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the July 29 election, saying that a vote for the party is a vote for “stability” and a guarantee of a country “free of civil war.”
On Friday, CPP spokesman Sok Ey San confirmed reports that the handouts had come from the national budget and defended the move, calling it entirely legal. He suggested that Hun Sen may have spent even more than the amount reported, as the prime minister “also helped garment workers who are pregnant,” as well as workers from factories whose owners had closed their doors and fled.
“This is legal, because he spent the national budget, as a prime minister, on all workers—regardless of their political affiliations,” he said.
Sok Ey San rejected the suggestion that Hun Sen was buying votes and said that Hun Sen could afford to distribute the money because Cambodia has enjoyed an economic surplus in recent months.
Cambodia’s garment workers largely lent their support to the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in the country’s last general election in 2013, and helped to secure a large number of parliamentary seats for the party, before it was dissolved by the country’s Supreme Court in November last year over an alleged plot to topple the government.
Rong Chhun, a former member of the National Election Committee (NEC)—the nation’s top electoral body—and the current chairman of the Cambodia Union Federation (CUF), told RFA’s Khmer Service on Friday that Hun Sen had acted in breach of electoral law.
He said that political parties are allowed to use only their own finances to campaign and called on the country’s Anti-Corruption Unit to investigate the prime minister’s actions.
“The election law doesn’t allow for vote buying,” he said.
“What Hun Sen has done in the past is equal to vote buying and is a form of corruption.”
NEC spokesman Hang Puthea said he was not aware of any instances of vote buying by Hun Sen or the CPP and refused to comment before the NEC investigates the issue.
“I will submit the case before the nine members of the NEC and will comment further upon receiving their response,” he said.
Koul Panha, director of electoral watchdog the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), wrote in a post on Facebook Friday that Hun Sen had violated the principles of a free and fair election by spending money on votes, which he said is “different from genuinely caring for his citizens.”
“This is a form of political corruption and a violation of the law that will negatively affect society,” he wrote.
Ahead of 2013’s general election, NGOs slammed unfair competition during the campaign period, saying government officials and civil servants had used state resources while stumping for their party.
Just last month, election observers accused Hun Sen of acting in breach of Cambodia’s electoral laws by urging people to vote for him in the upcoming general ballot outside of the official campaign period.
Hun Sen has called for Cambodians to support him at the polls at nearly every public appearance he has made—including while speaking at events for factory workers, students, and civil servants—despite a law which allows campaigning only between July 7 and 27.
Call for ‘impartiality’
Sok Ey San’s confirmation that Hun Sen had been providing handouts from the national budget came a day after the prime minister called on authorities to remain “impartial” during the election.
“We are the CPP—we want to win the election, but don’t forget that we are the ruling party, and we must bear responsibility [for the election climate],” he said.
“We shouldn’t be thinking only about winning and forgetting that we are working to hold a free and fair election.”
As part of the ruling that dissolved the CNRP in November, Cambodia’s Supreme Court stripped the party’s officials of their posts and banned many of its lawmakers from politics for five years. The CNRP’s seats in parliament were then distributed to government-friendly parties that had been rejected by voters.
The dissolution of the CNRP and the arrest of its president Kem Sokha, as well as a crackdown on NGOs and the independent media, are measures widely seen as part of a bid by Hun Sen to ensure that the CPP stays in power in Cambodia following the July vote.
Hun Sen marks 33 years in office this year.
Both the U.S. and EU have withdrawn donor support for Cambodia’s elections, citing government actions seen as limiting democracy in the country.
On Friday, seven senior members of the CNRP wrote an open letter to Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihamoni, urging the monarch to intervene in the Supreme Court’s decision to dissolve their party and ban their members from taking part in the upcoming election.
“To allow 118 CNRP officials to return to politics is an important first step in resolving the country’s political crisis before the July 29 election,” the letter said.
Legal expert and Bar Associate member Sous Vannak told RFA that the king has the right, as chairman of the Supreme Magistracy Council, to order the Minister of Justice to have the Supreme Court revisit the case.
However, analyst Bung Det told RFA that it is useless to ask the king to intervene, as in the past he has failed to respond to the requests of CNRP officials.
The monarchy has come under considerable pressure from the CPP during Hun Sen’s rule, and the prime minister once threatened to change the country’s form of government to a republic if the king refused to sign a supplemental treaty administering Cambodia’s border with Vietnam.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.