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Cambodia: Systematic Problems Undermine Elections

Unequal Media Access, Official Bias, Opposition Leader’s Exclusion Mar Polls

(New York) – Cambodia’s electoral process is marred by systematic problems that prevent national elections scheduled for July 28, 2013, from being free and fair, Human Rights Watch said today. Eight parties are taking part in the elections, including the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen, and the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), led by the opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

Problems with the electoral process include: unequal media access for opposition parties; pro-CPP bias within the national and local electoral apparatus; the lack of an independent and impartial dispute resolution mechanism; alleged manipulation of voter rolls to allow “ghost” voters and exclude opposition voters; and campaigning by senior security forces officers for the CPP.

“The entire process is biased in favor of the ruling party and against the opposition,” said Brad Adams, Asia director. “What should result in the will of the people has been organized to result in the will of the Cambodian People’s Party.”

The National Election Committee (NEC) has refused to reinstate Sam Rainsy as a candidate after his July 12 royal pardon from trumped-up criminal convictions. Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia on July 19, after four years abroad while facing imprisonment. The committee had endorsed Sam Rainsy’s removal from the voter rolls and barred him from running for election because of his convictions.

“An election with the leader of the opposition banned on spurious grounds is almost the definition of an unfair and undemocratic process,” Adams said.

The CPP and its direct predecessors have dominated Cambodian politics since the fall of the Khmer Rouge in 1979, despite losing United Nations-administered elections in 1993. Independent domestic and international election observers concluded that the 1998, 2003, and 2008 elections lacked credibility.

The European Union (EU), which had sent official election observation teams for previous Cambodian elections, told Human Rights Watch that it would not send an observation team in 2013 because of the many structural problems that make the elections unfair, and because of the failure of the CPP-controlled National Election Committee to act on previous recommendations from the EU and others to ensure free and fair elections.

“Citizens of genuine democracies would never accept at home the kind of grip the CPP has on the media and electoral machinery,” Adams said. “The process has been manipulated to ensure victory for the ruling party. Cambodia’s donors, including the United States, European Union, and Japan, still have enormous clout and should make it clear that they do not consider the process credible.”

One important improvement over previous election cycles has been the substantial reduction in election related violence – albeit against a backdrop of massive violence in previous elections for which no one has been held to account. However, opposition parties have operated in an environment of threats, harassment, and intimidation. This has severely impaired the ability of opposition parties to organize, recruit party members and candidates, and reach voters. The CPP has used politically motivated criminal charges as a tactic against its political foes, including through the conviction of Sam Rainsy and threats of charges against the CNRP’s vice president, Kem Sokha.

Throughout, Hun Sen has made it clear that he would not leave office even if defeated. CPP leaders and surrogates have warned that an opposition victory would plunge the country into a civil war or even lead to a military coup.

“Observers and diplomats judging the fairness of these elections should not fall into the trap of using lower standards for Cambodia,” Adams said. “Sadly, Cambodia is still not a democracy, or even on the path to democracy.”


For details about the barriers to a free and fair election in Cambodia, please see below.

Barriers to Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia in 2013
Article 25 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, to which Cambodia is a party, states:

Every citizen shall have the right and the opportunity… (a) To take part in the conduct of public affairs, directly or through freely chosen representatives; (b) To vote and to be elected at genuine periodic elections which shall be by universal and equal suffrage and shall be held by secret ballot, guaranteeing the free expression of the will of the electors; (c) To have access, on general terms of equality, to public service in his country.

However, actions by the Cambodian authorities in the period leading up to the July 28 elections have violated these rights in the following ways:

Unequal Access to Media
Equal access to media is essential for free and fair elections. In violation of Cambodia’s election campaign rules, the eight political parties competing in the election for the National Assembly have not had equal access to radio and television, by far the most important sources of news and information for most Cambodians. The CPP has a near monopoly on broadcast media, giving it a hugely unfair advantage over other parties and limiting access to information for voters, most of whom rely on television and radio for news and information. State-owned TVK and private stations broadcast pro-CPP news and propaganda while either criticizing or ignoring opposition parties.

A recent example of bias was the failure of state television and radio and private television stations to report on the return of Sam Rainsy to Cambodia on July 19, after receiving a royal pardon. Officials at TVK admitted publicly that they had decided not to cover Sam Rainsy’s return and show the large crowds welcoming him back at the airport and along Phnom Penh roads. Yin Sovey, chief of information at TV3, said that the director of his station had banned coverage. “Our broadcast is under the management of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government and we don’t want to have problems,” Yin Sovey said.

Private stations sent reporters to cover Sam Rainsy’s return, but did not broadcast stories. Bayon TV, run by Hun Sen’s daughter, said that it sent reporters but did not air its report to avoid embarrassing police officials because of the massive “anarchy” in the streets created by traffic and onlookers. “People will criticize the traffic police when they see that the road is blocked because of the return of Sam Rainsy,” a station official said.

Large-circulation print newspapers including Rasmei Kampuchea, Kampuchea Thmey and Koh Sonthepheap did not publish stories on Sam Rainsy’s return either. However, Kampuchea Thmey, also run by Hun Sen’s daughter, published a front page story on a much smaller CPP rally on the same day. The English language Phnom Penh Post ran a story on the failure to report on Sam Rainsy’s return with the headline, “All the News That’s Safe to Print,” suggesting that editors and reporters could suffer repercussions if they covered Sam Rainsy’s return.

Self censorship is a significant problem for journalists seeking to cover the election. Journalists are aware of what happened to Mom Sonando, the owner of Beehive Radio, one of only two remaining independent radio stations in Cambodia – there are no independent television stations. Mom Sonando was arrested in 2003, 2005, and 2012 on politically motivated charges in retaliation for broadcasting phone-in programs critical of the government and CPP, and selling blocks of air time to US-funded Radio Free Asia and Voice of America. In 2012, he was convicted and imprisoned for 20 years on sham charges of participating in an armed rebellion. Under international pressure he was released in March 2013, after a CPP-controlled appeals court resentenced him to a five year suspended sentence.

Politically Biased National Election Committee
The National Election Committee has lacked credibility because of political bias since its creation in advance of the 1998 national election. The five members are nominated by the Interior Ministry, then approved by the Council of Ministers, chaired by Hun Sen, and finally by the CPP-controlled National Assembly. Im Suosdey has been the chairman since 2002. Before that he was the first secretary general of the NEC from 1998 to 2002. From 1980 to 1995, he was the deputy chairman of the Central Committee of Youth Association of Cambodia, a CPP-affiliated entity. He is the brother of Im Sethy, a CPP Central Committee member and current education minister.

The CPP also dominates provincial, commune, and polling place election management committees.

In July 2012, the UN special rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia stressed the need for urgent reforms “to give Cambodians confidence in the electoral process.” He said that the root of the problem was that the National Election Committee is “dominated by supporters of the ruling party,” and recalled past problems in “its operation of the voter registration system.”

Domestic and international election observation bodies and donors, including the United States and European Union, have long called for reform of the committee and its membership, but the government has ignored these calls.

Lack of an Independent and Impartial Dispute Resolution Mechanism
Independent election observers in Cambodia and abroad have long called for the creation of an independent and impartial election dispute resolution mechanism. In the three elections over which it has presided, the NEC has rejected opposition complaints and sided with the CPP, often without any indication that it undertook a serious investigation into allegations of election irregularities.

Surya Subedi, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, reviewed the mechanism to resolve electoral disputes and concluded that it should be improved. According to Subedi, “Currently, the election officials themselves are entrusted with the task of resolving preliminary election disputes. To increase the confidence of all political parties in the election process, there is a need to amend the law and to create another institution, such as a special election tribunal or election court within the judicial structure of Cambodia or as a special election tribunal within the National Constitutional Council to resolve election-related disputes, rather than using the National Election Committee itself to do so.”

However, the Cambodian government, National Assembly, and NEC have taken no steps to act on these or other recommendations for reform. If there are serious disputes after the upcoming election, opposition parties and members of the public are likely to lack confidence in the process, and contest the results.

Alleged Manipulation of Voter Lists
In his July 2012 report, Subedi called for measures to prevent fraud in elections. He said that, “The commune council elections in June 2012 identified continuing problems with voter identity documents, especially the issuance and use of fraudulent documents (the now-abolished form 1018). The National Election Committee should review the process of issuing such documents to ensure that the system is not abused by political parties in their favor and that there are no electoral malpractices.”

However, serious concerns about fraud have recently surfaced. On July 23, the Phnom Penh Post published a lengthy story documenting large variations between official population figures and the number of registered voters in most of Cambodia’s 1,633 communes.

Nearly all of Phnom Penh’s communes have voter registration rates in excess of 100 percent, amounting to more than 145,000 additional names, with one commune topping the 200 percent mark, an analysis of previously unseen government population data reveals.

Further analysis of the already public National Election Committee voter list shows there are more than 25,000 exactly duplicated names in Phnom Penh alone, despite previous NEC assurances that exact duplicates had been removed. According to additional analyses of National Election Committee data obtained by Human Rights Watch, there are 8,850 exactly duplicated names within Kandal province, 18,204 in Kampong Cham province, 6,295 in Prey Veng province, and 13,507 in Battambang province. In all these instances, spellings of names, dates of birth, and genders are identical.

Human Rights Watch has also obtained data on what appears to be massive over- and under-registration in the provinces. The new data compares voter roll statistics, made public by the National Election Committee, with leaked official Interior Ministry population figures for the same communes. The results highlight that among 1,610 communes for which a comparison is easily possible, registration is 108 percent or more than the eligible population in 654 communes, according to Interior Ministry records.

Inquiries in a selection of these locations suggests that over-registration is achieved by retaining names of deceased citizens and citizens who have voluntarily moved or been moved by forced eviction to other places, and by duplicating or fabricating citizens’ names. Over-registration effectively creates a bank of voter names that can be abused by simple ballot box stuffing or organizing people fraudulently to vote in those names. The comparison also shows significant under-registration of voters who say they had registered but are no longer on the voter lists. Under-registration can be used to prevent people who are likely to vote for opposition parties from voting.

Reports by local and international election monitoring organizations in 2013 drew attention to the nature of these problems. A March audit of voter lists conducted by the US-funded National Democratic Institute (NDI) and two Cambodian organizations, the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC) and the Centre for Advanced Study (CAS), concluded that contrary to National Election Committee figures, which stated that it had registered 101.7 percent of previously known eligible voters, only 82.9 percent were in fact registered, while the names of 10.8 percent of voters who believed themselves to be registered were not found on the registration lists. Moreover, in the audit, only 63.6 percent of the names on the list could be verified to exist in person.

In April, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL) released a study that concluded that 13.5 percent of those who said they were registered to vote were not on the voter lists for 2013. If this figure is accurate for the entire country, it means that 1.25 million previously registered voters will lose their right to vote on July 28. The report said the missing people’s names were either not on the lists or so garbled as to be unrecognizable.

In response, on July 11, the National Election Committee released an audit by a firm it contracted to assess its voter rolls, stating that field tests concluded that 9.7 percent of people who believed themselves registered could not locate their names in the lists shown.

Another cause for concern is possible large scale misuse of Identification Certificate for Election (ICE) forms. These are produced by the NEC to allow a person who is registered to vote, but has lost all forms of identification used to identify themselves, to vote at polling stations. To obtain an ICE, two witnesses must affirm that the person lives in the commune where the person is registered to vote.

ICEs are issued with the signature of commune authorities, 97.4 percent of which are headed by CPP members. ICEs have been issued for the July 28 elections from 2011 through July 12, 2013. ICEs are supposed to have photographs attached, but many have been issued without photographs, according to persons who have reviewed the forms in the countryside.

The NEC says 480,000 ICEs have been issued. Official provincial election commission reports seen by Human Rights Watch specify that these include 99,733 ICEs in Battambang, 61,320 in Svay Rieng, and 56,228 in Pursat. Election monitoring organizations have expressed concern to Human Rights Watch that the large number of ICEs issued could be used to increase votes for the CPP in highly contested constituencies.

Partisan Campaigning by Members of the Security Forces and Civil Servants
For months, officers of Cambodia’s security forces and officials of the state civil service have been openly campaigning for the CPP and Hun Sen.

The partisanship of the military and police have created an intimidating atmosphere for voters in many parts of the country. Relying on official and semiofficial media reports, Human Rights Watch has extensively documented the systemic and open support of senior and local military and police officers for a CPP election victory, and in particular Hun Sen’s continuation as prime minister.

Those involved include the military supreme commander, Pol Saroeun; the chairman of the joint military general staff, Kun Kim; the army commander, Meas Sophea; the national gendarmerie commander, Sao Sokha; the national police commissioner, Net Savoeun; and two of Hun Sen’s sons who are generals in the armed forces, Hun Manet and Hun Manit. Many of these are members of top CPP leadership bodies and concurrently heads of CPP “work teams” assigned to organize and mobilize voting for the CPP in the provinces.

Opposition leaders and activists told Human Rights Watch that they live with the constant fear that if Hun Sen and the CPP perceive them as posing any real electoral threat, the military and police will again be ordered to suppress them, including through arbitrary arrests and extrajudicial killings. “It’s always in the back of our minds,” one opposition candidate told Human Rights Watch.

Declarations by government, military, and National Election Committee officials on July 24 that military and police officers can campaign for the CPP only heighten concern about their partisanship.

Human Rights Watch monitoring of official and semiofficial media found that virtually all provincial, municipal, district, and ward governors, who are appointed civil servants, not elected officials, have also been actively campaigning for the CPP and Hun Sen. Many are identified as heads of the CPP organization in the areas they govern as state officials.

National civil servants have also been deployed to stump for the CPP by elected officials who turn ministries under their control into pro-CPP institutions. Officials at one national ministry told Human Rights Watch that its minister has worked via the ministry hierarchy to organize subordinate officials to work openly for a CPP victory in the province to which he is assigned as head of a CPP “grassroots strengthening” team. One official explained, “If the minister tells someone to go, they have to go.” An opposition activist from this province told Human Rights Watch that, “They want the people to be afraid that opposing the CPP means opposing the state, which people will fear is dangerous.”

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