Cambodians to vote in Bellwe City Council elections on Sunday — Radio Free Asia

UPDATED at 1:38 p.m. EDT on 2022-07-12

Cambodians will go to the polls on Sunday to elect local communal councils in what observers say will be a test of support for a burgeoning opposition party after five years of a campaign coordinated by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his supporters to crush dissent.

Hun Sen ruled Cambodia for more than three decades. His Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is expected to win a landslide victory as it is the only political party large enough to field candidates across the country.

Ahead of Sunday’s vote, the UN Human Rights Office criticized what it called a “systemic shrinking” of political space in the country, leaving room only for the CPP.

“We are disturbed by the series of threats, intimidation and obstructions against opposition candidates ahead of Cambodia’s communal elections on June 5,” office spokeswoman Liz Throssell said in a statement. .

“Candidates have faced numerous restrictions and reprisals which have hampered their activities, with the imprisonment of a number of candidates which seems intended to curb political campaigning. Four days before the elections, at least six opposition candidates and activists are in detention awaiting trial while others summoned for political reasons have gone into hiding.

Throssell noted the government’s response to the last local council elections five years ago. The Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) after it performed well in local elections in 2017, a decision that paved the way for the CPP to win all 125 seats in the National Assembly in the 2018 general elections.

Although the country is now essentially a one-party state, a new opposition party, the Candlelight Party, has entered the fray and will face its first big test on Sunday.

The Future Forum, an independent think tank based in Phnom Penh, called the election a “litmus test” for the country.

“The main overriding concern of any election cycle set today is the absence of a viable political opposition,” he said in a report. “That in itself makes the expected outcome of such processes reasonably predictable. It is however crucial to note that, compared to the 2018 cycle, there is a greater number of election observers, and the presence of an alternative vote for almost all the municipalities of the kingdom.

The elections will not have much effect on the national balance of power, as the communal councils mostly deal with local affairs. But the councilors elected on Sunday will vote on behalf of their constituents in the 2024 elections for the Cambodian Senate.

Election monitors are examining the competition between the CPP and 16 other parties for 11,622 seats in 1,652 rural and urban constituencies to find out how much support the opposition Candlelight party can win in the atmosphere and after months of harassment from the ruling party.

Parliamentarians from other Southeast Asian countries denounced the “harassment and intimidation” suffered by the opposition during the campaign.

In a statement released on Friday, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) took issue with incidents of political intimidation by local officials.

“It is impossible to hold free and fair elections in a climate of continued persecution against the opposition…these polls cannot be considered an exercise in pluralism and democracy as the CPP led by Prime Minister Hun Sen does not allow anyone to challenge his power to campaign freely and safely,” said Maria Chin Abdullah, Malaysian Member of Parliament and member of APHR.

“The intimidation of the opposition that we are currently witnessing is nothing new. This is part of a long pattern in which Hun Sen and his party have maintained and increased their control over Cambodia, closing space to opposition and dissent rights advocates without fear of reprisal. This does not bode well for the future of democracy in Cambodia. The outcome of this local election will pave the way for national elections next year and determine who will control the overall political power of the country,” Abdullah said.

She urged neighboring countries to “keep a critical eye” on Cambodia and not accept Sunday’s elections as a genuine democratic exercise, criticizing the polls as “another attempt by the PCP to legitimize its increasingly dictatorial”.

The campaign is coming to an end

On the last day of the official two-week campaign on Friday, the CPP and the Candlelight Party held political rallies across the country, with thousands of people in the capital Phnom Penh taking part in the rallies on both sides.

Hun Sen’s son, Hun Many, attended campaign events in the capital as CPP supporters, including famous celebrities, drove luxury cars in a convoy, hoping to influence the voters with star appeal.

Candlelight supporters led their own convoy through the city, using megaphones to remind people to vote.

Both sides looked back on the campaign period with optimism.

“Over the past 14 days, we have shown that we are better and more firmly positioned than other parties,” Sar Kheng, vice president of the CPP and the country’s interior minister, told his supporters while leading campaign activities in the southern province. by Prey Veng.

“We have shown that the CPP is the only party capable of guaranteeing peace and reading development,” he said.

Candlelight Vice President Thach Setha, who led campaign activities in Phnom Penh on Friday, told RFA’s Khmer Service that his party had received overwhelming support because voters recognized their genuine need for democracy. He acknowledged that the campaign is supported mainly by donations from supporters.

During Friday’s convoy, people cheering for the party provided activists with roadside water, he said.

“[The people] want change, and they want to tell the CPP they want change, they don’t want to keep doing the same thing,” said Thach Setha.

The campaign period was mostly peaceful, Hang Puthea, spokesperson for the country’s National Election Committee (NEC), told RFA.

“In the past 14 days, there has been no violence or threats,” he said. The NEC received only 52 complaints during the campaign period. “The campaigns were helped by good security and good order,” he said.

But Kang Savang, coordinator of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), noted that the property of opposing political parties has been destroyed and officials have abused their positions by using government resources for anti-terrorism activities. country.

Comfrel urges the government to review the status of civil servants, members of the army and justice officials who participated in campaign activities, he told RFA, as these people cannot serve the public during the war. country.

“We are making these recommendations so that the law can be strengthened by using this year’s experience to improve the situation ahead of the 2023 general election,” he said.

Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

An earlier version of this report referred to the NEC as the National Election Commission. It is the national electoral commission.

Joan D. Boling