Supporters of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party wave national and party flags during a rally ahead of the general elections in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 26 July 2013. EPA-EFE FILE/MAK REMISSA

Cambodia gov’t slammed for barring opposition party from contesting election

Bangkok, May 16 (EFE).- Cambodia’s government on Tuesday came under international fire after the only credible challenger to the ruling party of strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen was disqualified from contesting the upcoming general election.

On Monday, the National Election Committee (NEC) barred the opposition Candlelight Party from registering for the July 23 polls, saying it failed to provide the necessary documents. It was the only party out of 19 prevented from registering, and intends to appeal.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen releases a dove during a ceremony in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 28 June 2015. EFE-EPA FILE/MAK REMISSA

The party was reportedly asked to provide original registration documents from the interior ministry, which it said had been taken in a 2017 raid of the headquarters of its predecessors, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP).

On Tuesday, the Asian Network for Free Elections (Anfrel) expressed its “deep concern” over the NEC’s move.

“The disqualification of the Candlelight Party on the grounds of lacking the necessary paperwork is both unjust and disproportionate. It is essential to consider the circumstances under which the original party registration certificate was lost during police raids on the CNRP’s headquarters in 2017,” it said.

It added that the fact the party was able to run in the local commune elections last year “exposes the arbitrary and politically motivated nature of this disqualification.”

Former activists of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) stand in a police truck as they arrive at the Municipal Court in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 28 January 2021. EFE-EPA FILE/MAK REMISSA

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) also condemned the Cambodian government.

“The Hun Sen regime once again shows its utter disdain for the principles of democracy and unwillingness to compete in free and fair elections,” APHR board member and former Thai minister of foreign affairs Kasit Piromya said Tuesday.

“If it wants the world to take the results of the July elections seriously, the Cambodian government must halt all efforts to hamstring its opponents and instead ensure a space for all parties to participate.”

Overnight, the European Union also issued a statement saying the refusal of the NEC to register the party “is another worrying sign of shrinking space for political parties to compete” in the upcoming polls, and that it “strongly objects to the decision (…) which adds to depriving Cambodia’s citizens of the right to choose their representatives.”

A portrait of General Hun Manet (C), commander of the Royal Cambodian Army, looks on during a promotion ceremony at the Ministry of Defence in Phnom Penh Cambodia, 20 April 2023. EFE-EPA FILE/KITH SEREY

In Cambodia, Australia’s Ambassador Justin Whyatt on Tuesday said that Canberra was “deeply concerned.”

“Multi-party democracy requires there to be political space, laws and institutions that allow political parties to participate and compete fairly on election day. Cambodian democracy is not served by this development,” he said.

The NEC’s move is reminiscent of the Supreme Court’s 2017 dissolution of the popular main opposition party, the CNRP, ahead of the last general election, which spurred most of the CNRP’s senior members to flee into exile.

As a result, Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party subsequently won all available parliamentary seats, effectively making the country a one-party state.

The Candlelight Party was created last year and made up largely of former members of the CNRP, becoming the country’s main opposition force.

Hun Sen, 70, has lashed out on multiple occasions against Candlelight leaders, and in January threatened to send some to jail for denouncing threats and harassment by his party.

He has ruled the country with an iron fist for 38 years, now one of the world’s longest-serving leaders. At the last election in 2018 he said he would remain in office for two more terms, taking him to 2028.

In the meantime, Hun Sen has been positioning his eldest son, army chief Hun Manet, to take the top job, and in 2021 explicitly declared his support for Hun Manet to succeed him as Cambodia’s leader “through elections.” EFE