Cambodia’s ruling and main opposition parties marked a final day of a two-week campaign period ahead of June 4 commune elections with huge rallies in the capital Phnom Penh Friday, with their respective leaders urging voters to back them in the polls, seen as a bellwether for a general ballot next year.
Prime Minister Hun Sen made what was only his second appearance on the campaign trail as his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) kicked off the day’s events at 60-Meter Road in the capital’s Chak Angre Leu commune, before leading supporters through the city with its chief on the back of a flatbed truck.
The Cambodian strongman, who has led his country for more than 30 years, again warned of chaos and instability if his party does not win the election, while addressing tens of thousands of supporters through loudspeakers along the route.
“Please vote for the CPP so as to maintain peace, progress and development,” he said.
“Voting for the CPP means voting for oneself. A wrong decision made in one day will result in misfortune for a whole lifetime.”
Hun Sen raised the specter of Lon Nol, who led a 1970 military coup against then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk and became the self-proclaimed president of the newly created Khmer Republic, ruling until he was deposed by the murderous Khmer Rouge regime in 1975.
“We already witnessed [such a mistake] when Lon Nol made a wrong decision on March 18, 1970 which, as a consequence, made our citizens victims ever since,” he said.
“Hence, we must grab what we already have in our hands.”
The prime minister also warned opposition parties against challenging the outcome of Sunday’s vote, saying the country’s courts could dissolve them for doing so. The main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) nearly unseated Hun Sen in 2013 elections and claimed it only lost due to voter fraud.
The CNRP staged its rally hours later, beginning at 3:00 p.m. at Phnom Penh’s Wat Pothiyaram pagoda, with party president Kem Sokha telling a smaller turnout of supporters that his candidates want “positive change” for the country.
“Our Khmer brothers and sisters used to enjoy renowned history during the Angkor era, gaining respect and admiration throughout the world,” he said.
“Why are we now being criticized by the international community? Is this not because of our human rights violations, destruction of our natural resources, and corruption,” he questioned.
“By voting for the CNRP, the reputation and value of our Khmer nation will flourish.”
None of the other 10 smaller political parties competing for 1,646 commune council seats across Cambodia staged rallies in the capital Friday, though many held gatherings in other provinces around the country.
The rallies came at the end of a 14-day campaign period that began on May 20 and has been relatively calm, compared to those ahead of previous elections, despite repeated threats from Hun Sen of civil war should the CPP lose.
On Friday, the Situation Room group of NGOs—including the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), Licadho, and Adhoc—issued a statement evaluating the electoral process in the lead up to the polls, saying technical arrangements made by the National Election Committee (NEC)—the country’s top electoral body—had “produced more positive outcomes” than in previous years.
“The political environment and security situation are free from any serious violence that may negatively affect the management of the election, [or the] political freedom of participating parties, associations, civil society organizations and voters,” the group said.
“We believe that there will be security and safety during Election Day and the announcement of election results.”
According to the Situation Room, the legal framework of the election was satisfactory, with only a law on political parties approved by the National Assembly in February—despite an opposition boycott of parliament in protest—containing “more negative points than before it was amended.”
The NEC, the group said, had “managed its work better than in the previous mandates,” including its recruitment and appointment of election officials, performance of duties, planning, training, use of law enforcement, and implementing of regulations and legal procedures.
Cambodia’s voter list is of “better quality and more accurate,” while the registration of political candidates was “positive” and inclusive of women and a variety of different parties.
The Situation Room applauded the election campaign for being held “positively and smoothly without any violence or disputes among parties leading to the obstruction of campaign activities,” though it noted restrictions by authorities with regard to the use of public compounds and freedom of speech.
Preparation for the election and vote counting methods are “better,” including more effective methods of ensuring that each voter can cast only one ballot, it said.
“Through general observations, Cambodia’s political environment and security did not experience any serious violence,” the statement said.
“But there were political messages of threats used by senior officials of the ruling authorities that may cause concerns and fears among the citizens.”
While Cambodia’s campaign period was seen as one of the most free and fair of recent elections, opposition officials and supporters have reported several instances of obstruction.
One such case occurred Friday, when authorities in Kandal province’s Takhmao district, which abuts Phnom Penh municipality, prevented two CNRP vehicles carrying more than 20 supporters from traveling to the capital to join their party at Wat Pothiyaram, saying the NEC would not permit “cross-commune campaign rallies.”
Dos Nich, a member of the Takeo province CNRP Executive Commission, told RFA’s Khmer Service that Takhmao authorities stopped his vehicle citing a NEC statement released a day earlier, which barred supporters from Takeo, Kompong Chhnang, Kompong Cham and Tbaung Khmum provinces from joining Friday’s rally in Phnom Penh due to the threat of “traffic congestion” and “affecting public order.”
Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC) executive director Sam Kuntheamy told RFA such orders from the NEC and the Phnom Penh municipal government are issued purely “to gain political advantage.”
“The law [on the election of commune councilors] does not prohibit residents from various provinces from participating in a [campaign rally] in Phnom Penh,” he said.
“Such prohibitions are seen as a restriction on voters or the public from participating in a campaign rally. They should enjoy the full right to take part in political activities.”
Sam Kuntheamy said that if the NEC had banned mobile campaign rallies, party presidents should not have been allowed to campaign in various provinces.
Reported by Sothearin Yeang, Chandara Yang and Zakariya Tin for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.