National Election Committee Chairman Sik Bun Hok on Tuesday brushed off speculation over depressed turnout and a lack of independent monitors at this year’s national elections, saying Cambodia’s Constitution required neither a minimum number of voters nor the presence of monitors for the ballot to be considered valid.
The NEC head was speaking at the official launch of the election procedures leading up to the July 29 vote, which comes months after the Cambodia National Rescue Party – the only viable challenger to the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party – was forcibly dissolved and its president, Kem Sokha, was arrested for “treason”.
The remarks also came just days after former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy urged Cambodians to boycott the poll if the CNRP were not allowed to contest the elections, and asked local and international monitors to stay away. Koul Panha, head of elections watchdog Comfrel, also questioned the legitimacy of the elections, while other monitors have expressed qualms over the political situation.
But the NEC’s Bun Hok told reporters on Tuesday that while election laws allow international and local groups to monitor the national vote, such observers were not considered mandatory.
“In addition, among the NGOs, there are good-intentioned NGOs and ill-intentioned NGOs. If the bad ones don’t want to participate, the good NGOs will,” he said at Tuesday’s press conference.
He pointed to elections in European countries, like France, which have had low voter turnouts but were still deemed valid, noting that the same was applicable to Cambodia.
France’s presidential elections last year saw around 35 percent turnout in the second round of voting, which is a runoff between the top two candidates. The first round of balloting, however, saw 77 percent turnout.
Cambodia saw an almost 90 percent turnout during last year’s commune elections and around 70 percent in the 2013 national ballot.
“The percentage of turnout, even if it is less than 30 percent, there is no right to reject it. Our laws and the Constitution do not state about [turnout],” Bun Hok said.
He went on to criticise the CNRP as being responsible for its own dissolution because it had violated the law, saying the decision to exclude the party – the nation’s most popular opposition group by far – was a Supreme Court decision, not the NEC’s. The court, acting on the government’s request, dissolved the party over accusations it was fomenting “revolution” after a one-sided hearing in which little credible evidence was produced.
Ever since, observers have questioned the validity of an election without the CNRP, and have suggested that depressed turnout resulting from its absence could invite international condemnation.
The NEC was reformed after the disputed 2013 elections – in which the CPP won by only a narrow margin over the CNRP – after years of criticism that it favoured the ruling party. The body was reconfigured as bipartisan, with an equal number of CPP- and CNRP-nominated members, as well as one “neutral” member. Since the CNRP’s dissolution, however, three of its four nominees have quit in protest and been replaced by two officials from minor parties and one with past links to the CPP.
Former NEC member Rong Chhun – a CNRP nominee who resigned in protest – questioned the NEC’s neutrality following the shakeup.
“So, I say, in short, that the NEC has lost its original form and cannot ensure the elections can be trusted by the citizens,” he said on Tuesday.
But Hang Pitou, of the Young Analysts Group, said it was still critical local groups monitored the electoral body and the July elections, even if the results were a foregone conclusion.
“If there is no participation of civil society to observe the elections, I think the elections won’t proceed freely and fairly,” he said.