Cambodia threatens fines, prison for those urging election boycott

The warning comes after the main opposition party was excluded from the July 23 national vote.
By RFA Khmer
Cambodia threatens fines, prison for those urging election boycott Members of the Constitutional Council of Cambodia announce the election disqualification of the Candlelight Party for the upcoming election, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, May 25, 2023.
Cindy Liu/Reuters

Cambodia’s election authority has threatened fines and prison terms for those who urge a boycott of July 23 national elections, while Western diplomats voiced concern over the exclusion of the main opposition party from the vote.

The National Election Committee said in a statement Tuesday that those who “urge voters not to go to vote, recreate mistrust in the election and disturb the electoral process” could face fines of between 5 million-20 million riels (US$1,200-4,800) and prison terms. It did not specify the possible length of prison term. 

The committee said that there had been leaflets, pictures and video clips distributed on social media urging voters not to vote or to destroy their ballots because the opposition Candlelight Party, or CLP, isn’t allowed to contest the election. 

The committee last month excluded the CLP on a technicality – although it was allowed to contest commune elections just last year. The ruling meant Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party won’t have any major challengers on the ballot next month.

On Monday, French Ambassador Jacques Pellet and German Ambassador Stefan Messerer met with Cambodian Interior Minister Sar Kheng to register their concern over the party’s exclusion and to call for free, transparent and multiparty elections.

“They expressed their concerns about the CLP’s absence from this important democratic exercise,” Noemie Pinta, press counselor at the French Embassy in Cambodia, wrote in an email to RFA Khmer.

“The absence of the main opposition party can only undermine the democratic nature of the vote,” she said. “France will continue to call for the holding of free, transparent, pluralistic elections in accordance with the 1991 Paris Peace Agreements and the Cambodian Constitution.”

The peace agreements ended more than 20 years of conflict and internal strife that laid waste to Cambodia, and provided a framework for democracy, later recognized in the country’s constitution. However, Hun Sen, who has led Cambodia since the mid-1980s, has shrunk space for dissent.

In the run-up to this July’s vote, his government has used a combination of legal action, threats and harassment to target the political opposition, independent media and civil society groups. He’s also co-opted former opposition supporters and activists to ensure the continuing dominance of his Cambodian People’s Party, which currently holds all the National Assembly seats after the last flawed elections in 2018.

At Monday’s meeting with the ambassadors, Sar Kheng, who is also deputy prime minister, stressed the maintenance of public order and a secure, nonviolent electoral environment for the upcoming election, The Phnom Penh Post reported.

The Candlelight Party is vowing to continue political activities although it is excluded from the election. In response to the NEC statement, it said it’s not a crime if voters don’t cast ballots. 

“Voters have the full right to decide whether they want to vote or not without any pressures, threats or incitements from any political parties,” the party said in a statement. 

Kang Savang, a coordinator with the independent Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, or Comfrel, agreed, saying that Cambodians have the right to choose parties that they like, and voting is not an obligation.

The United States has said it is “deeply troubled” by Cambodian authorities barring the CLP and does not plan to send official observers for the elections on the grounds that experts say the vote won’t be free or fair.

Translated by Samean Yun for RFA Khmer. Edited by Roseanne Gerin and Mat Pennington.


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