The National Election Committee (NEC) said the recent arrest of Thach Setha, vice-president of the Candlelight Party (CP) on the order of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court will not affect the process of organising this year’s national election, scheduled for July 23.

NEC deputy secretary-general and spokesman Som Sorida said preparations are proceeding normally, with each of the parties that have registered with the Ministry of Interior welcome to run in the election.

“If the CP chooses not to participate because of the arrest of some of its leaders, this will not affect preparations or the election itself,” he said.

He noted that relevant authorities also have the duty to enforce the law. Any offences committed during the election process answer to the law.

Sorida claimed that in almost every parliamentary election, there are allegations of irregularities or a deterioration of the political environment.

“It could be said that it has become a tradition for opposition parties or civil society organisations to claim that the enforcement of the law has a negative effect on the political atmosphere,” he added.

“We should consider how the CP came to be. Before the 2017 election, the Supreme Court-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party [CNRP] also made allegations about a negative political environment. It is clear that this is part of the opposition’s playbook,” he said.

Son Chhay, another CP vice-president, told a January 17 press conference that the judiciary had been used to threaten the leadership of his party. This included the seizure of property of some members and the arrest of Setha. These events, he claimed, have strained the Kingdom’s political scene ahead of the national election.

“The decision to withdraw or contest the election is not up to two or three leaders. The party will have to review the facts clearly before making a decision. In the meantime, party leaders are negotiating with the ruling party to ease tensions. If we cannot find a way to improve the political climate, then a final decision must be made,” he said.

“Setha should not have been arrested at this time. He should have been left to continue his political work until after the election is over. His case is civil, and the arrest was a threat that cannot be allowed to stand. His case has already been resolved, but I will not speak on behalf of his legal team,” he added.

The CP’s Standing Committee convened a January 18 meeting resolutely opposing all forms of political repression, intimidation or persecution by the ruling party. It demanded an end to these activities, saying it will continue to build its party structure so it is in a position to contest free, fair and just elections.

Setha was arrested on January 16 in Phnom Penh and detained overnight for allegedly issuing bad cheques.

Sok Eysan, spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), said that only the Cambodian people have the right to assess that situation on the ground. Participation in the upcoming election is the right of each party, but it is the voting public who will decide the outcome.

“If a party that believes the election will somehow be unfair, they should not register with the NEC, but let other parties contest at the polls. Joining the election is the right of all registered parties, and no one has the right to block their entry,” he added.

Eysan said more than 40 political parties are registered with the interior ministry, so if one chose to drop out, another would take its place.

“Thach Setha was arrested – based on a court order – for issuing bad cheques. This is clearly a criminal offence, so there is no way people can suggest that the arrest was politically motivated,” he added.