Cambodia: 2023 general election explained



Cambodia’s upcoming general election for the 125 members of the National Assembly will neither be genuine nor competitive, particularly given the arbitrary exclusion of the main political opposition, the Candlelight Party. The polls on 23 July 2023 are set to replicate the 2018 general election, when the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won all National Assembly seats after the forced dissolution of the then-primary opposition.

Since December 2021, Hun Sen - who has ruled Cambodia for 38 years via the CPP - has made no secret of his intention to have his son, General Hun Manet, succeed him in due course. As the Prime Minister turned his focus towards securing his succession, a disturbing uptick of human rights and election-related violations eliminated the short-lived re-emergence of a formidable opposition political party last year. The stage has been set for an entirely illegitimate election.

The current electoral process is inconsistent with Cambodia’s human rights obligations under Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR), which recognises and protects the Cambodian people’s right “to take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives.”

Recent amendments make election laws even more repressive

In the lead-up to the general election, the government stepped up its repression of political dissent by enacting an array of legislative amendments aimed at preventing an election boycott - a strategy supported by the main political opposition.

Draft amendments to four election laws were rapidly approved and enforced in the last week of June 2023, less than four weeks prior to Election Day. One amendment penalises citizens who do not vote - irrespective of the reason - by removing their political right to stand for election if they have not voted in the last two elections prior to the one they wish to contest. This effectively imposes a six-year ban on running for office in commune or general elections.

In addition, amendments to one of the four laws, the Law on Election of Members of National Assembly, prescribes fines of between five and 20 million riel (about US$1,250 - US$5,000) for those “inciting” others not to vote [1]. Early this month the National Election Committee (NEC) issued a statement that went so far as to claim that calling for voters to spoil ballots also amounted to a form of incitement, and that those who do so should be fined and barred from becoming election candidates. The free expression of civil society organisations is also threatened through the prescription of fines ranging from 10 to 30 million riel (about US$2,500 -US$7,250) for those engaging in vaguely defined activities that may “disturb” the election process [2].

Hun Sen has also called for Cambodians living overseas to return to the country to vote. However, there is no system in place to allow overseas citizens to cast an absentee ballot. As a result, Cambodians currently located out of the country who are unable to return and cast their ballots will also suffer the unjust consequences of the amended law.

These amendments are a resounding echo of how election laws have been changed to benefit the ruling party in the past. For example, in the lead-up to the 2018 general election, the law was hastily amended to ban political parties from engaging with individuals convicted of a criminal offense. This move prevented high-profile opposition leader Sam Rainsy from participating in the electoral process.

No independent election administration

The NEC is responsible for administering elections in Cambodia. However, it is not independent from the executive branch of government and is led by a CPP Central Committee member.

In the lead-up to, and the aftermath of, the June 2022 commune elections, the NEC rubber-stamped an opaque electoral process that saw an unprecedented obfuscation of vote counting procedures. The NEC also failed to take action against the CPP for its widespread and systematic violations of electoral regulations.

Not only did the NEC ignore the CPP’s routine intimidation of independent and opposition-aligned election observers, it also actively engaged in unexplained decisions to disqualify and disenfranchise leaders and members of the Candlelight Party. Before the 2022 polls, the NEC baselessly removed 150 members of the party from candidate lists [3].

After the 2022 polls, the NEC filed a defamation complaint against Candlelight Vice-President Son Chhay, who had accused it of bias and election fraud. Chhay was convicted by a CPP-controlled court in relation to this case [See below, Increased attacks on the political opposition].

In May 2023, the NEC barred the Candlelight Party from taking part in the upcoming polls [See below, Main opposition party disqualified - again].

Candlelight Party: CNRP redux
The Candlelight Party - formerly known as the Sam Rainsy Party - re-emerged in early 2022 as the primary opposition party following the forced dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) by the Supreme Court in 2017. The Candlelight Party provided a ray of hope for a competitive election ahead of the June 2022 commune elections, as well as for the upcoming July 2023 general election. Before the 2022 elections, the party succeeded in rapidly registering more than 20,000 candidates in nearly all the country’s localities - a feat matched only by the CPP.

Main opposition party disqualified - again

Despite the Candlelight Party’s popularity, it no longer poses a serious challenge to the ruling CPP and Hun Sen. On 16 May 2023, the NEC refused to register the Candlelight Party for the upcoming election, claiming it had failed to submit its original registration documentation with the Ministry of Interior [4]. This decision was made despite the fact that the Candlelight Party had previously been permitted to participate in the 2022 commune elections with the same documentation [5]. In response to the NEC’s decision, the Candlelight Party filed an appeal with the Constitutional Council to overturn the NEC’s ruling. However, on 25 May 2023, the Council unanimously concluded that the NEC’s disqualification of the party was legitimate. The decision of the Constitutional Council - composed of nine members, five of whom are members of the CPP Central Committee - was final.

Ultimately, 18 political parties were allowed to contest the polls this year. As evidenced by the previous illegitimate general election in 2018 (when 20 parties competed), this scenario does not reflect genuine political pluralism in Cambodia. Most of the other political parties contesting the polls are CPP proxies, or parties that have long been co-opted by the CPP. They do not represent a viable electoral alternative and are allowed to exist and operate precisely because they do not pose a challenge to the CPP.

Increased attacks on the political opposition

The lead-up to the general election has been marked by an increase in government repression, violence, and vicious rhetoric against political opponents. In January 2023, Hun Sen gave a speech in which he told his political opponents to prepare to be assaulted and that he could “gather people belonging to the CPP to protest and beat [them].” In a Facebook post, he gave the opposition the choice of legal or physical oppression, threatening: “There are only two ways: first, the legal system; second, the stick. Which one do you want?” Days later, he added: “You are fish in a barrel. I can break your neck to eat [you] any time I want to.” [6]

A spike in physical assaults and even attempted murder against members of the Candlelight Party followed Hun Sen’s verbal attacks. Grassroots activists have not been spared. Attacks against them as they left party meetings have been documented [7]. Such assaults, usually perpetrated by a team of two assailants on motorbikes, are reminiscent of a previous wave of political violence in 2021, which culminated in the brutal murder of opposition member Sin Khon in November that year. The party’s members continue to face convictions, violence, arbitrary detention, and threats from the highest levels of government.

Over the past year, the government has also systematically targeted the Candlelight Party’s leadership with baseless lawsuits and criminal prosecutions in a blatant attempt to discourage them from competing in the upcoming election. For instance, in June 2023, Candlelight Party Vice-President Thach Setha was denied bail by the Supreme Court, a decision which upheld the decision of the lower courts. Setha had been charged with incitement to commit a felony and to discriminate, due to comments he made to Cambodian migrant workers abroad. Setha has been detained since 16 January 2023 for allegedly issuing a bounced check in 2019. That arrest was prompted by a complaint filed by a pawnshop owner connected to Hun Sen’s family.

In October 2022, another Candlelight Vice-President and former CNRP lawmaker, Son Chhay, was convicted of defamation following a complaint filed by the NEC, and fined nine million riel (about US$2,190) [See above, No independent election administration] - a sanction increased to 10 million riel (about US$2,500) on appeal.

In January 2023, Kong Korm, the Candlelight Party’s top advisor, was forced to forfeit a property after Hun Sen arbitrarily ordered its confiscation in a public speech.

These attacks on the leaders, members, and supporters of the Candlelight Party are part of the government’s ongoing persecution against political opponents. Between November 2020 and December 2022, dozens of former CNRP leaders and supporters were convicted in mass show trials. Many convictions were based simply on political speeches or social media posts calling for democratic reform and supporting non-CPP politicians. As of 1 July 2023, at least 27 political figures were unjustly imprisoned, including 12 Candlelight Party leaders, elected representatives, and members.

Notably, in March 2023, former CNRP President Kem Sokha was convicted on politically motivated charges of “treason” and sentenced to 27 years in prison. He has been placed under house arrest until his appeals have been exhausted. While detained at home, Sohka is prohibited from communicating with his lawyers and anybody else beyond his immediate family without court approval. This was the conclusion of a show trial conducted by a CPP-controlled court, which lasted for nearly three years from January 2020 to December 2022.

Further restrictions on media and freedom of expression

Independent media and the right to freedom of expression have been trampled on in the course of the CPP’s tightening grip on the country. A prominent example of this occurred on 9 February 2023, when Hun Sen and his son Hun Manet took issue with an article published in the bilingual independent news outlet Voice of Democracy (VOD). In response, Hun Sen ordered the revocation of the media operating license of the Cambodian Center for Independent Media (CCIM), parent of VOD. This forced the closure of VOD - Cambodia’s last remaining daily independent news outlet. Hun Sen’s actions were in flagrant disregard of Cambodia’s existing laws on how to deal with alleged errors in media reports.

Recommendations to UN member states

• Denounce the upcoming July 2023 election as an illegitimate process that violates international standards and Cambodia’s human rights obligations.
• Refrain from conducting any formal or official monitoring of the election process, including on Election Day, as to do so would effectively endorse a wholly illegitimate process.
• Refrain from providing any form of electoral assistance to the NEC and/or other entities that are directly involved in the administration or monitoring of the election process, until such institutions are demonstrably independent and impartial.
• Issue clear, unequivocal, and vocal statements about the ongoing election-related serious human rights violations, including the physical attacks and judicial harassment against political opponents.
• Publicly condemn the government’s persecution of all political opposition candidates and parties, including the Candlelight Party and former members and supporters of the CNRP.
• Call on the government to release all political prisoners and drop all charges against them.
• Denounce factual inaccuracies and combat misinformation spread by the government regarding the views of democratic nations on Cambodia’s government and human rights situation.
• Provide protection and support for activists, human rights defenders, and media workers and organisations who exercise their legitimate right to freedom of expression and seek to reopen civic and political space in Cambodia.
• Visit Cambodia to collect first-hand information regarding the political, human rights, and labour rights situation.
• Demand legislative and institutional reforms aimed at ensuring that future elections are genuine and participatory. Such reforms must include: amending election laws to remove repressive provisions added in recent years to bring them into line with international law and standards; ensuring the independence and impartiality of the NEC; and facilitating the exercise of the right to vote for Cambodian citizens who reside abroad.

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