Opposition leader Sam Rainsy appears to have run out of options in his bid to contest in Cambodia’s national polls, as the country’s political parties prepared to wrap up their election campaign amid allegations by independent observers of “arrests, threats and intimidation” by the ruling party.
Three days before the July 28 polls, Sam Rainsy, head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), received notification from the National Assembly, the country’s parliament, denying his request for a restoration of his lawmaker status and to contest in the election.
The opposition politician has been pushing for his right to contest the elections after he returned from self-exile in France last week following a pardon he received from King Norodom Sihamoni for convictions widely seen as politically motivated.
“The National Assembly’s permanent committee members would like to inform the CNRP president that as the CNRP doesn’t control any assembly seats, the assembly is unable to reinstate your immunity,” National Assembly president Heng Samrin wrote in a letter to Sam Rainsy, a copy of which was received by RFA’s Khmer Service.
The National Assembly is dominated by long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which sacked all 29 CNRP lawmakers last month after they formed a new party.
Another appeal by Sam Rainsy to the Constitutional Council to contest in the election was also rejected on Thursday, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the rejections were “political motivated” amid wide expectations that the CPP would easily win the elections.
“How can we call this election a free and fair election?” he asked.
“Does the CPP want the international community to recognize the election results?”
AFP cited CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann as saying that the party was considering whether to appeal to King Norodom Sihamoni in a last-ditch attempt to enable Sam Rainsy to run.
The opposition leader was granted a surprise amnesty by the King and returned to Cambodia last week after four years of self-exile to avoid an 11-year jail sentence he says was politically motivated.
But despite the royal pardon, he is barred from running as a candidate because authorities say it was too late to add his name to the electoral register.
The National Election Committee (NEC), which oversees the polls and which the opposition has accused of lacking independence from the CPP, rejected a request to stand in the elections by Sam Rainsy earlier this week.
The head of the CNRP appeared upbeat Thursday, avoiding questions about the denied requests and urging voters to support his party and bring about change in Cambodia.
“When we are elected we can do what we want according to the laws,” he told RFA.
“We will resolve all these issues as long as we have the power to organize the country.”
Several nongovernmental organizations monitoring the election campaign in Cambodia expressed concern Thursday that the CPP had been harassing supporters of the opposition in the past month.
The groups, which included the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC) and the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) said in a statement that they had observed “irregularities” by the CPP during the campaign.
“According to the independent and impartial observation by the civil society organizations during [the] 28 days leading up to the … national election … there were some problematic incidents such as violence, arrests, threats and intimidation to the opposition party supporters,” the statement said.
It listed a number of incidents involving the CPP that included prohibiting opposition supporters from joining party marches, using threats of civil war in the event of an opposition win, vote buying, destruction of opposition billboards, and unfair access to broadcast media, as well as refusing to allow Sam Rainsy to run.
“In order for the upcoming parliamentarian election [to be] free and fair, the civil society organizations would like to call [on] the royal government, authorities and armed forces to maintain a neutral role to protect and ensure [a calm] atmosphere during the election and after the election,” the statement said.
The NGOs also called on the military to publicly declare that no coup d’etat would occur in the event of an opposition win.
They appealed to all eligible voters to cast their ballot according to their own will and for party activists to avoid violence.
But NEC Secretary General Tep Nytha said Thursday that the election campaign had gone “smoothly” and “without any violence or crime.”
“The election campaign will end on July 26. I would like to appeal to all political parties to respect the NEC’s rules and to cooperate with local authorities to protect security and order during the election campaign,” he said.
Officials from each party vowed to throw their biggest rallies of the campaign on Friday.
Rights groups say Cambodia's electoral system is riddled with major problems, including issues over voter registration lists, the use of civil servants and army personnel to campaign for the CPP, government control of mass media to slant the news, and intimidation against opposition figures and civil society monitors.
Hun Sen has said he will try to stay in office for another decade, until he is 74. Rights groups say his continued rule will only worsen human rights violations and corruption and further suppress political freedoms.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.