Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) has disqualified the Candlelight Party, the country’s main opposition party, from participating in the July general election for failing to present a verified and original copy of its registration document. Opposition leaders, human rights groups, and foreign governments have criticized the NEC decision for being “arbitrary, unjust, and disproportionate,” and a denial of “the Cambodian people’s right to a free and fair election.”
Candlelight officials said that the party’s registration documents were lost during a raid conducted by the police in 2017, but this didn’t prevent them from participating in the commune election in 2022. Their disqualification is expected to benefit the ruling party led by the son of incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has been in power for nearly 40 years.
Attacks against the opposition have intensified over the past months. In January, Hun Sen threatened the use of violence against any Candlelight members found to be breaking the law. After he issued this threat, at least seven reported acts of violence have been recorded against a total of six opposition party members.
In addition, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court sentenced 13 other members of the political opposition to prison terms on politically motivated charges. The main opposition leader, Kem Sokha, was sentenced to 27 years in prison and barred from holding public office for the charge of “conspiring with a foreign power.”
After NEC announced its decision, Hun Sen warned Candlelight members against committing offenses if they assemble in public places.
Please do not hesitate to take legal action in responding to the dangerous activities of Candlelight. All prisons are prepared to receive those leaders across all levels of Candlelight Party if they dare to commit offenses.
Reacting to the disqualification of Candlelight Party, exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy said that “it's a joke to refer to Cambodia as a democracy, Cambodia is an autocracy.” Another exiled opposition politician, Mu Sochua, posted her reaction on Twitter: “It's clear as daylight: the regime is afraid of youth voters.”
The NEC approved the registration of 18 parties. Only the Grassroots Democratic Party issued a statement criticizing the disqualification of the Candlelight Party which it deemed as “contrary to the principles of multi-party liberal democracy.”
Candlelight Party officials said they will appeal the NEC's decision. Journalist Sreinith Ten warned on Twitter that Cambodia's “deteriorating democracy is at the point of no return” if the decision is not reversed.
The ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) described the NEC decision as “bureaucratic stonewalling.” Its board member and former Thai minister of foreign affairs Kasit Piromya added:
The Cambodian government is clearly fishing for any excuse to block opposition parties from competing. Disqualifying a party on the basis of such a small technicality fools absolutely no one and just serves as another show of the Hun Sen regime’s bad faith dealings.
Human rights groups called on authorities to ensure that the upcoming election will be free and fair:
FORUM-ASIA and CIVICUS urge the Cambodian Government to stop using the legal system to crush opposition, particularly before elections. We also call on the government to allow its citizens to exercise their right to vote for their representatives.
The European Union in a statement said the action of the NEC “is another worrying sign of shrinking space for political parties to compete in the upcoming general election.” The embassies of France, Germany, and Australia also expressed concern over the disqualification of the Candlelight Party.
But the spokesperson of the Cambodian Foreign Ministry insisted that there was nothing irregular in the decision of the NEC. The official also said that the democratic nature of the election will not be affected:
The absence of one political party from the electoral process due to its negligence in complying with the legislation does not affect the liberal, pluralistic, and democratic nature of the country as voters are still able to choose freely among at least 18 contesting political parties.