(New York) – Local elections in Cambodia on June 4, 2017, took place in a threatening environment hostile to free speech and genuine political participation, leading to elections that were neither free nor fair, Human Rights Watch said today. Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly stated that he would be willing to “eliminate 100 to 200 people” if the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) did “not win elections at all stages,” adding to a broader environment of threat and fear against media, political activists, and citizens.
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. Many others face threats of prosecution. The opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Sam Rainsy remains in exile after being convicted on trumped-up charges.
“It is not a democratic election if the ruling party controls all election-related institutions, the media is a de facto organ of the ruling party, and opposition party members face death threats from the prime minister,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Under no standards anywhere can an election be deemed free or fair where these kinds of problems exist.”
Although voting day was peaceful, the electoral process was fundamentally flawed, Human Rights Watch found. Problems included unequal media access for opposition parties, bias in favor of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party within the national and local electoral apparatus, and the lack of an independent and impartial dispute resolution mechanism.
Threats and intimidation by the authorities against the opposition and its supporters were common. In a shocking admission, Interior Ministry Gen. Khieu Sopheak, acknowledged that pre-election threats against human rights non-governmental organizations and other members of civil society were part of an apparent plan to intimidate them from monitoring the election. “I just said the Interior Ministry started an investigation because we wanted to threaten those organizations to be scared,” he said.
Senior CPP civilian and security forces repeatedly raised the specter of “war” if the CPP lost the election and senior members of the security forces campaigned vigorously for the CPP. Many parts of the CPP-controlled state bureaucracy joined leading CPP members who command the police and military to openly campaign in favor of the CPP.
Transparency International, which had hundreds of observers on the ground, reported 25 percent of polling places had unauthorized personnel present, including government-appointed village chiefs and government police, both overwhelmingly CPP-affiliated. Witnesses at several polling places around Phnom Penh told Human Rights Watch that soldiers reportedly from Brigades 911 and 70 lined up at stations that were dominated by these units’ men, some of them still in military uniforms.
In violation of Cambodia’s election campaign rules, the political parties competing in the election did not have 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 huge 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 criticizing or ignoring the CNRP.
Despite credible allegations that the 2013 national elections were marred by ballot stuffing with surplus ballots, the National Election Committee printed 1.5 million ballots more than the number of registered voters. The NEC purchased a brand of ink used to mark fingers to prove that someone has already voted even after tests showed it could be removed by using hair care products, leaving open another avenue for electoral irregularities to occur. The same ink was similarly problematic in 2013.
According to the National Election Committee, Cambodians turned out in record numbers as 89.5 percent of 7.86 million registered voters cast votes for political parties vying for 11,572 seats in 1,646 communes across the country. The NEC introduced its recently-revamped computerized biometric voter registration system and implemented the 2015 Election of Commune Council law guiding polling procedures, both of which were put in place to address criticisms following the country’s 2013 fundamentally flawed national elections.
The new voting registration procedures, although seemingly effective for registering voters within Cambodia, made no provisions to register large numbers of Cambodian migrant workers in countries like Thailand and Malaysia. Many garment workers, who have historically been sympathetic to the opposition and make up a large majority of voters in many communes, were not given time off from work to vote and had to choose between earning needed income and voting.
Despite the irregularities, the popular vote was very close between the two main parties. Preliminary figures gave 51.39 percent to the CPP and 44.22 percent to the CNRP. These tallies represent major losses for the ruling party and opposition gains compared with local elections in 2012.
Cambodia is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and as such is required to ensure that every citizen, without discrimination on the basis of political opinion, has the opportunity to take part and to vote in genuine free elections. The United Nations Human Rights Committee has underscored that while there can be reasonable rules, “persons entitled to vote must be free to vote for any candidate for election …and free to support or to oppose government, without undue influence or coercion of any kind which may distort or inhibit the free expression of the elector’s will. Voters should be able to form opinions independently, free of violence or threat of violence, compulsion, inducement or manipulative interference of any kind.”
“The results of the commune elections make it clear that the upcoming 2018 national elections will again be tightly contested, making it more important than ever to carry out urgent fundamental reforms,” Adams said. “The UN and Cambodia’s donors, particularly Japan and the EU, which work directly with the National Election Committee, should make it clear to Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling CPP that if national elections take place next year under the same conditions they will not be considered free and fair.”