Local elections marred by irregularities and marginalisation of opposition
On 4th June 2017, Cambodia held local elections, which were highly contested between the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). The CNRP garnered 46 percent of the vote and the ruling CPP won 61 percent of the vote, a slight decrease from 62 percent it obtained in 2012 elections.
The UN Human Rights Office for South-East Asia applauded the peaceful nature of the elections, asserting that the lack of election-related violence bodes well for upcoming national elections scheduled for 2018. Official results from the 4th June local elections will be released on 25th June.
Despite the relatively high number of votes for the opposition, both national and international election watchdog organisations have expressed concern over the integrity of the election, citing multiple instances of irregularities. The national Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) noted that 12 election monitors in two localities were forced to abandon their posts as observers. The Cambodian chapter of Transparency International found that 25 percent of polling stations had unauthorised people present during voting. These irregularities have prompted some to declare the election as "not free or fair".
In addition to the election-day irregularities, civil society groups have also drawn attention to the ongoing repression of political opposition and critical voices in Cambodia, as Human Rights Watch noted:
"The election took place as dozens of opposition party members and activists languish behind bars, including an elected member of parliament, a senator, and a National Election Committee (NEC) official, after politically motivated prosecutions by CPP-controlled courts".
Cambodian authorities have harassed and intimidated CNRP members. CPP leader Hun Sen made negative comments against the opposition party prior to the elections, claiming that Cambodia could descend into civil war if the CNRP won the elections. The exiled leader of the opposition Sam Rainsy was forced to step down in February 2017 to ensure the continuation of the CNRP. Rainsy's resignation came after the CPP changed legislation so that authorities could dissolve political parties whose members have been convicted of criminal offences. Rainsy has been convicted for multiple offences of incitement and defamation for statements made on social media.
FreeThe5KH are five Human Rights Defenders of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)... https://t.co/gVXtVPXZqV— COMFREL (@COMFREL) April 26, 2017
As previously reported on the CIVICUS Monitor, the continued pre-trial detention of five activists affiliated with the human rights organisation, Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), represents one of the tactics used by Cambodian authorities to silence critics. The human rights defenders have already spent a year in pre-trial detention.
On 26th April 2017, three human rights organisations reported being prevented from communicating with the ADHOC activists. One of the organisations, the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights (CCHR), stated that the three organisations had intended to visit the imprisoned activists to discuss the campaign for their release. Despite submitting all relevant documents to authorities well ahead of time, CCHR received notice on 12th April 2017 that only family members and lawyers were permitted to visit the imprisoned activists. Civil society activists maintain that the prolonged imprisonment of the ADHOC activists in isolation and without trial is politically motivated. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra'ad Al Hussein, spoke on the case of the detained activists in the video below.
In an environment of heightened suspicions of and hostilities towards civil society's role in political affairs, the Cambodian authorities recently announced an investigation into the "neutrality" of civic groups. On 1st June 2017, a spokesperson for the Ministry of the Interior announced that a number of civil society groups may be inspected to assess whether they align themselves to the opposition political party. Several organisations have already been singled out, such as ADHOC, COMFREL and Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defence of Human Rights are reportedly targets of the unjustified investigation.