In a nationally televised speech after the dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen declared that “the government will commit to protecting the multiparty democracy process.” Indeed, 20 parties have submitted applications to compete in this year’s national election, although none are seen as a viable replacement for the CNRP, and questions linger as to their independence.
Yet with two months to go until the polls, what’s most relevant is not who is present, but what will be absent. It’s not just the fact that the CNRP is missing or that none of the minor parties competing won even 2 percent of the vote last year. Unfortunately, even if there were a competitive opposition party, it would be a stretch to say Cambodia is close to a free and fair political landscape.
Lee Morgenbesser, an expert on authoritarian regimes, said the elections would “absolutely not” be free and fair, even with the CNRP’s participation.
“The minimum standard requires that all parties and candidates be subject to the same procedures for registering and appearing on the ballot; all campaign and compete on a level playing field; all have equal access to the media; voters be free to vote for their preferred candidates; and official results accurately reflect the votes that were cast,” he explained.
Cambodia has failed to satisfy each of these requirements – and few would be resolved even if the CNRP were revived.
Take the registration and pre-campaign period, which has already been marred by complaints. The Grassroots Democracy Party (GDP) and the Cambodian Youth Party (CYP) both already claimed to have experienced some degree of harassment. GDP has reported having billboards torn down, while CYP said local government officials have refused to sign forms necessary for registration.
The “level playing field” has also been disrupted, with the once-neutral National Election Committee now made up of mostly ruling party affiliated representatives. Most CNRP-appointed members resigned in protest after the party’s dissolution, and minor parties like GDP have already expressed concerns about the electoral body’s ability to arbitrate conflicts fairly.
Civil society and democracy advocates too have come under threat. The National Democratic Institute (NDI) was forcibly closed for its alleged involvement in CNRP’s “revolution.” NDI, which long maintained a “strictly nonpartisan” stance, provided political advice and democracy building counseling to both major parties. After 25 years in Cambodia, it was shuttered and its three foreign staffers were ejected from the country.
The Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR) was put on thin ice when Hun Sen ordered its closure, only to relent in an uncharacteristic about-face a few days later. While CCHR and others have continued to work in the face of threats, they are undeniably feeling the heat. Chak Sopheap, executive director of CCHR, said it is “simply impossible” to hold free and fair elections without an “unthreatened and unhindered” civil society. Civil society must be free to promote respect for fundamental freedoms and be able to keep citizens informed. The government has used threatening and at times violent rhetoric against civil society groups over the last year, with multiple activists reporting incidents of surveillance and intimidation. Many, including Sopheap, believe this behavior has created an atmosphere of fear and tension that severely limits civil society as a whole.
When it comes to media, independent outlets were dealt blow after crippling blow over the last year, leaving Cambodia with almost exclusively pro-government media outlets. On September 4, the day CNRP President Kem Sokha was arrested, the Cambodia Daily published its final edition. The fiercely independent paper was shut down over a disputed multi-million dollar tax bill, declaring “Descent Into Outright Dictatorship” with its last front page headline. In May, the last bastion of free press, the Phnom Penh Post, was the scene of mass firings and resignations after being handed over to new owners with links to the Cambodian and Malaysian governments. More than 30 independent radio stations were also shut down in the last year, cutting off a key source of information for Cambodians in rural areas. Two former Radio Free Asia reporters were arrested in November for espionage, apparently for simply owning reporting and broadcasting equipment. They remain jailed to this day.
Even accurate counting, something Morgenbesser said Cambodia generally accomplishes, is in doubt after multiple independent election watchdogs said they might not bother observing this year’s election at all. The Situation Room – a coalition of watchdogs and NGOs that come together every election cycle to observe the polls – is banned from re-establishing itself for July’s vote. Hun Sen has called the peaceful coalition a “command post in the battlefield,” while a pro-government op-ed referred to it as the “Situation War Room.” Sam Kuntheamy, president of election watchdog Nicfec, normally a key player in the Situation Room, said there may be little point to observing such an imbalanced election – and the absence of CNRP is just “one of the factors,” Nicfec later confirmed that it will not be observing the election, as did the Committee for Free and Fair Election in Cambodia (COMFREL). Transparency International is still debating the merits of participating, but has said it is “hard to foresee” a scenario in which they observe the election.
The government has even abandoned symbolic gestures such as Phnom Penh’s “Freedom Park,” established in 2010 to satisfy the country’s Law on Peaceful Demonstrations. The park, which hosted mass protests following the disputed 2013 elections, is supposed to be a designated area for citizens to gather in protest. It was closed down after Hun Sen ordered it to be relocated to the outskirts of the city, around 4 kilometers away from the original park. The relocation seems to violate a clause in the law that requires the park be easily accessible to the public. Today, 10-foot high metal walls have cropped up around the park, blocking access entirely.
The closure of Freedom Park may make little difference, given that Hun Sen has expressed his willingness to kill 100-200 people to maintain stability, and Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak bragged that nobody “dares” to protest.
The forced exclusion of the CNRP has understandably grabbed headlines. But the restrictions on free speech, media, civil society, freedoms of association and assembly, and the possible absence of election observers indicate that even if the CNRP were miraculously resurrected, the Cambodian elections would still be a far cry from free and fair.
Andrew Nachemson is a freelance journalist based in Southeast Asia.