Updated at 4:00 p.m. ET on 2013-08-11
Cambodia’s political parties ended their election campaigns on Friday ahead of this weekend’s voting amid accusations by rights and opposition groups that the campaign has been biased in favor of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s party.
The eight political parties in the race marked the end of a 30-day campaign period by holding final rallies ahead of Sunday’s vote, in which the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is widely expected to retain power.
CPP President Chea Sim led thousands of supporters in a rally in the capital Phnom Penh on Friday while Hun Sen, who has headed Cambodia for 28 years and vowed to remain in power for another decade, stayed out of the public eye after vowing to stay out of the campaign.
At the rally for the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which is hoping for an upset victory galvanized by the return of its president Sam Rainsy after a royal pardon, party leaders urged voters to report irregularities on election day.
Sam Rainsy, whose was stripped of the right to contest the polls despite his pardon for prison convictions widely believed to be politically motivated, spoke strongly in support of his CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha, calling him his “life and death partner.”
As parties made their final push to garner votes before Saturday’s “cooling off” period, rights groups listed a plethora of problems which they said had marred the campaign, urging the government to make a last-minute move allowing Sam Rainsy to compete in the polls.
U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement Friday that “systematic problems” in the electoral process prevent the polls from being free and fair.
“The entire process is biased in favor of the ruling party and against the opposition,” HRW’s Asia director Brad Adams said.
“What should result in the will of the people has been organized to result in the will of the Cambodian People’s Party.”
Voter rolls have been manipulated to allow “ghost” voters and exclude opposition voters, and opposition parties have not had equal access to radio and television under a CPP “near-monopoly” on broadcast media, HRW said.
Partisan campaigning by the military and police has created an intimidating atmosphere for voters and the National Election Committee (NEC), which oversees the country’s elections, is biased toward the ruling party, it said.
Sam Rainsy greets supporters at a Cambodia National Rescue Party rally in Kompong Cham, July 26, 2013. Photo credit: RFA.
Adams said the election would not be free and fair without the participation of Sam Rainsy, whose appeals to the National Assembly, Constitutional Council, and NEC to reinstate his right to vote and contest were all rejected this week.
“An election with the leader of the opposition banned on spurious grounds is almost the definition of an unfair and undemocratic process,” he said.
The NEC said Sam Rainsy would need to reregister as a voter and that the registration period has passed and he must wait for the next registration opportunity at the end of the year.
The U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia Surya Subedi, who had called for Sam Rainsy to be allowed to “fully participate” in the election, said Friday it was not too late for the NEC to address complaints brought before it.
He did not make any reference to Sam Rainsy in his statement but some analysts had suggested that the election laws could be amended for the opposition politician to have a shot at becoming an MP even after the election.
“With regard to the National Election Committee, all complaints brought to its attention should also be promptly investigated, and if appropriate, remedied,” Surya Subedi said.
“It is not too late for many of the important concerns already raised to be addressed in a meaningful manner.”
Local civil society groups
Forty local civil society groups, including voting watchdog the Committee for Free and Fair Elections Comfrel (Comfrel), issued a joint statement urging the powerful Constitutional Council to allow Sam Rainsy to contest and slamming irregularities in voter registration and unfair competition during the campaign period.
“If Mr. Sam Rainsy is not allowed to stand it will seriously undermine the credibility of the elections and devalue the royal pardon he received,” the group’s statement said.
Government officials and civil servants had used state resources toward political campaigning for their party.
Voter registration rates are suspiciously high at over 100 percent of the population in some areas, the statement said, while some voters have had trouble finding their names on the electoral register.
Monks join the Cambodia National Rescue Party rally in Kompong Cham, July 26, 2013. Photo credit: RFA.
But there had been some positive developments since the last national elections in 2008, including a decrease in serious campaign-related violence and a greater willingness among Cambodians to discuss politics openly without fear, they said.
On Wednesday, CNRP and CPP supporters clashed in the capital Phnom Penh after the opposition supporters held a rally in front of the CPP district headquarters.
Subedi urged citizens to avoid violence and intimidation during Sunday’s vote.
“In the remaining hours, I urge the people of Cambodia to refrain from violence and have due regard for the rights of other fellow citizens when exercising their own,” he said. CPP
A CPP statement released after the close of the campaign period at midnight said the campaign period had gone smoothly despite some cases of disturbances.
In the statement, the party, which has warned that civil war could break out if it loses the election, accused unnamed political parties for attacking the CPP and praised supporters for their patience.
“These good attitudes contribute to preserving security, unity, and the respect for the law,” it said.
The CPP, which won 90 out of 123 seats in the National Assembly in last year’s vote, has gained more seats in each held election since 1998.CNRP
While many expect the CPP to coast to victory in the polls considering its well-oiled election machinery, the CNRP believes it can cause a big upset by ousting Hun Sen's government.
Sam Rainsy has warned of street protests if he is denied the right to contest the elections.
During the CNRP’s rally on Friday, Kem Sokha urged the party supporters to report any irregularities that would happen during the election.
“If you see any irregularities please file complaints immediately,” he said.
During the rally, a nearby vehicle marked with a CPP logo blasted a commentary about a split between Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha. Authorities eventually ordered the CPP truck to silence the broadcast. Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.
Correction: A background paragraph in an earlier version of this article inaccurately stating that hundreds were killed in 1998 elections has been removed.