The National Election Committee on Monday criticised those urging voters or monitors to stay away from the July 29 national election, a thinly veiled reference to former opposition leader Sam Rainsy and election monitor Koul Panha, with even Prime Minister Hun Sen reminding voters to head to the polling booths.
On Saturday, Rainsy issued a call to Cambodians to stay away from the polls if the Cambodia National Rescue Party were not allowed to participate, and Comfrel head Koul Panha questioned the legitimacy of the July ballot on Thursday while speaking to Radio Free Asia. Comfrel, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, is perhaps the country’s highest-profile election monitor.
Both Rainsy and Panha also said the absence of the largest opposition party, which was forcibly dissolved at the government’s behest in November, would call into question the election’s legitimacy.
Seemingly responding to the criticism, the NEC on Monday issued a letter referring to “some individuals” who were making appeals for an election boycott and urging observers to stay away.
It said that election monitors were supposed to be neutral based on NEC law and cautioned that the law provides for fines for anyone preventing people from voting.
“The NEC is calling [these individuals] to stop their activities, appeals to all voters to go to vote and appeals to all local and international monitors to register for monitoring the election,” the statement reads.
NEC spokesman Dim Sovannarom did not provide clarity about whom the statement was referring to, and despite the reference to punitive fines, he said the electoral body will not initiate legal action.
“The NEC is not a political institution,” he said. “It is a legal and technical institution.”
Rainsy and Panha could not be reached for comment.
However, some local NGOs who have monitored elections in the past said on Monday that their participation was based on two factors: an improvement in the current political situation and new funding from donors. Registration for local and international monitors starts April 23 and ends July 18.
Sam Kuntheamy, head of election monitor Nicfec, said it was still unclear if his group would participate in the elections, but that preparations were being made in case the current situation improves.
“We will first wait and see which parties will participate. And we have no budget, so we will have to prepare the plan to find the budget,” he said, adding that the European Union and the recently expelled National Democratic Institute had funded the group’s activities in the past.
EU Ambassador George Edgar said the economic bloc remains ready to support local monitoring of the July elections.
However, Transparency International Cambodia Director Preap Kol said international criticism over the political situation was making it difficult for his group to commit to monitoring the elections.
“We will only decide to engage in the electoral process if the political climate improves and if elections will be seen by Cambodian people and key international communities and stakeholders to have met conditions for political competitiveness,” he said.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday used his Khmer New Year greeting to the nation to ask registered voters to not give up their opportunity to vote for the next government.
“Please go to join the election to choose parliamentarians on 29 July, 2018, without missing it and in order to enforce a citizen’s rights as the owners of the fate of your country,” his message reads.
Cambodians’ entitlement to that right was shaken, however, when the CNRP’s 3 million voters were effectively disenfranchised with the stroke of a pen last November.
While Hun Sen did not refer to the boycott call, senior CPP officials in recent weeks have also visited the provinces asking voters to exercise their right to choose their representative, at times suggesting in a rare show of openness that citizens could vote for any party in the running.
Given the CPP’s historically strong party machinery geared at getting out the vote, a significant drop from last year’s nearly 90 percent turnout for the commune elections would only lend credence to criticisms that July’s ballot is illegitimate, said political commentator Lao Mong Hay.
“The number of spoiled votes proportionally adds to this illegitimacy,” he said, referring to no-show voters.
He also said that the boycott call was likely to resonate with opposition supporters, given months of simmering tensions at a local level.
Speaking to The Post in Australia last week, former CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua said that for such a boycott to be effective, it would need to be supported with a voter education drive to lay out the options voters have, and emphasising the absence of the CNRP on the ballot.
“After they have the information, voter education, and [see] that we’re not on the ballot, they can mobilise among themselves,” she said.
However, the fledgling Grassroots Democratic Party’s spokesman, Sam Inn, said asking voters to sit out the July elections would only hamper any progress made towards democratic change, saying the boycott call was a self-serving move by the CNRP.
“It means that only he [Rainsy] and his team can play [a] role to challenge the CPP. He looks down on the capacity of the Cambodian people,” he said.
Additional reporting by Leonie Kijewski