Widespread Problems Prevent Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia in 2013

Cambodia’s electoral process is marred by systematic problems that prevent national elections scheduled for July 28th 2013, from being free and fair, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said Friday. Eight parties are taking part in the elections, including the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), led by the opposition leader Sam Rainsy. Problems with the electoral process include: unequal media access for opposition parties; pro-CPP bias within the national and local electoral apparatus; the lack of an independent and impartial dispute resolution mechanism; alleged manipulation of voter rolls to allow “ghost” voters and exclude opposition voters; and campaigning by senior security forces officers for the CPP.

“The entire process is biased in favor of the ruling party and against the opposition,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW. “What should result in the will of the people has been organized to result in the will of the Cambodian People’s Party.”

The National Election Committee (NEC) has refused to reinstate Sam Rainsy as a candidate after his July 12th royal pardon from trumped-up criminal convictions. Mr. Rainsy returned to Cambodia on July 19th, after four years abroad while facing imprisonment. The committee had endorsed Mr. Rainsy’s removal from the voter rolls and barred him from running for election because of his convictions.

“An election with the leader of the opposition banned on spurious grounds is almost the definition of an unfair and undemocratic process,” Adams said.

The CPP and its direct predecessors have dominated Cambodian politics since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, despite losing United Nations-administered elections in 1993. Independent domestic and international election observers concluded that the 1998, 2003, and 2008 elections lacked credibility.

Surya Subedi, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, reviewed the mechanism to resolve electoral disputes and concluded that it should be improved. According to Subedi, “Currently, the election officials themselves are entrusted with the task of resolving preliminary election disputes. To increase the confidence of all political parties in the election process, there is a need to amend the law and to create another institution, such as a special election tribunal or election court within the judicial structure of Cambodia or as a special election tribunal within the National Constitutional Council to resolve election-related disputes, rather than using the National Election Committee itself to do so.”

However, the Cambodian government, National Assembly, and NEC have taken no steps to act on these or other recommendations for reform. If there are serious disputes after the upcoming election, opposition parties and members of the public are likely to lack confidence in the process, and contest the results.

The European Union (EU), which had sent official election observation teams for previous Cambodian elections, told HRW that it would not send an observation team in 2013 because of the many structural problems that make the elections unfair, and because of the failure of the CPP-controlled National Election Committee to act on previous recommendations from the EU and others to ensure free and fair elections.

“Citizens of genuine democracies would never accept at home the kind of grip the CPP has on the media and electoral machinery,” Adams said. “The process has been manipulated to ensure victory for the ruling party. Cambodia’s donors, including the United States, European Union, and Japan, still have enormous clout and should make it clear that they do not consider the process credible.”

One important improvement over previous election cycles has been the substantial reduction in election related violence – albeit against a backdrop of massive violence in previous elections for which no one has been held to account, HRW said. However, opposition parties have operated in an environment of threats, harassment, and intimidation. This has severely impaired the ability of opposition parties to organize, recruit party members and candidates, and reach voters. The CPP has used politically motivated criminal charges as a tactic against its political foes, including through the conviction of Sam Rainsy and threats of charges against the CNRP’s vice president, Kem Sokha.

Throughout, Hun Sen has made it clear that he would not leave office even if defeated. CPP leaders and surrogates have warned that an opposition victory would plunge the country into a civil war or even lead to a military coup.

“Observers and diplomats judging the fairness of these elections should not fall into the trap of using lower standards for Cambodia,” Adams said. “Sadly, Cambodia is still not a democracy, or even on the path to democracy.”

Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a party, states that “Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity… (a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives; (b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors; (c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.”

However, actions by the Cambodian authorities in the period leading up to the July 28th elections have violated these rights in the following ways: unequal access to media, politically biased national election committee, lack of an independent and impartial dispute resolution mechanism and alleged manipulation of voter lists, and partisan campaigning by members of the security forces and civil servants.

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