In a significant political move, the National Election Committee (NEC) recently disqualified 17 opposition figures, including former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, from the electoral process.

Based on a decision communicated on July 17, these individuals, who have been accused of inciting the public to discredit the upcoming July 23 general election, face a two-decade ban from standing as election candidates and fines between 10 and 20 million riel ($2,500 and $5,000).

A focal point of the controversy is Rainsy, who faces a steeper penalty with a 25-year ban and a 20 million riel fine.

Alongside him, 16 other figures have been hit with 20-year bans and 10 million riel fines. They include Seng Meng Bunrong, Sor Chandeth, Kong Saphea, Heng Danaro and Kim Sok, among others.

Adding to the situation, four members of the Candlelight Party (CP) have been detained between July 14-17. They stand accused of encouraging voters to invalidate their ballots in the election.

Those arrested are Eng Srouy and Vong Runny on July 17, and Ly Ry and Bun Khet on July 14.

Reacting to the arrests, CP vice-president Rong Chhun denied the accusations.

“The position of the Candlelight Party is not to incite people to ruin their ballot. We are keeping calm and let our members and supporters take part in the election based on their willingness,” Chhun stated.

The CP’s electoral hopes were dashed when they failed to produce certified registration documents as mandated by the NEC.

Adding further controversy to their situation, a video surfaced on social media showing one of the arrested members, Bun Khet, stating that he was acting under the instructions of Rainsy to call voters to invalidate their election papers.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, commenting on the arrests and the CP’s statement, raised questions about the party’s stance.

“The Candlelight Party has released their statement, while members of his party who have committed wrongdoings have confessed to their mistakes. He [Khet] also claimed that he received orders from the traitor of three generations,” he said in reference to Rainsy.

On July 16, interior minister Sar Kheng took a strong stand against any attempts to disrupt the election, stating that anyone obstructing voters or encouraging them to spoil their ballots would face legal consequences.

“Those who hinder people from going to vote will be responsible before the law, and those who urge voters to cross out the ballot paper will also be facing the law,” he said.

Sok Eysan, spokesman of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), highlighted the connection between Bun Khet and Rainsy, arguing that it evidenced the CP’s attempts to disrupt democratic process.

He warned that the CP would face legal repercussions based on political party law.

Kim Santepheap, secretary of state at the Ministry of Justice, reaffirmed this stance, saying that any actions to discourage voter participation or invalidate ballots are illegal, according to Article 142 of the recently amended election law.

Violators of this law could face fines, be removed from voter lists, be banned from standing as candidates and even face other criminal charges.

Yang Peou, secretary-general of the Royal Academy of Cambodia, believes that enforcing these laws is crucial in a country that adheres to the rule of law.

“In these cases, we cannot say NEC is biased as it is a neutral referee in the election work and has a duty to enforce the law. Therefore, if there is any individual who blocks the election process, NEC must enforce what the law says,” he said.