Cambodia Pre-Election Watch: July 28, 2013 General Elections

July 23, 2013, 12:52 p.m.

Originally posted on IRI.org on July 22nd, 2013. Cambodia Pre-Election Watch: July 28, 2013 General Elections On July 28, 2013, Cambodia will hold general elections to elect members to its 123-seat National Assembly.  This poll will be the fifth general election since the 1991 Paris Peace Accords that ended decades of violence, civil war and foreign occupation in Cambodia.  In the face of criticism surrounding the accuracy of the Cambodian National Election Committee (NEC) voter registry, restrictions on media, the ousting of all 29 opposition members of parliament and the overall tone of threats and intimidation from the government of Cambodia, the international community and Cambodian opposition parties largely contend that the elections will be neither free nor fair.

Current Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) are widely expected to capture a majority of seats.  Sitting securely on top of the judicial, political, economic and social institutions of Cambodia, Hun Sen declared in May that he intends to win three more elections and retire at age 74.  Assuming power in 1985, Hun Sen is one of the longest-serving rulers in the world.  As the campaign period proceeds, the government continues to fully engage the patronage system, media loudspeaker and law enforcement forces to propel the CPP and Hun Sen toward victory on Election Day.  The major political opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), was formed in 2012 by the merger of the Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party and is facing serious challenges in establishing its identity and operating without interference.  Many observers believe they are unlikely to make significant gains in these elections.  Although the merger has injected new enthusiasm among opposition supporters, the CNRP faces a number of challenges both internally and from the CPP.  The CNRP struggles to communicate a united message, effectively raise money and campaign openly, limiting its ability to rally supporters. On July 7, less than three weeks before elections, Sam Rainsy announced that he will return to Cambodia after more than three years of self-imposed exile despite an active warrant for his arrest and outstanding court sentence of 11 years in prison.  In a surprising turn of events, King Norodom Sihamoni issued a royal pardon to Rainsy on July 12 based on a recommendation from Hun Sen, and Rainsy returned to Cambodia on July 19 to one of the largest opposition rallies in modern memory.

Electoral System In 1993, the United Nations Transitional Authority for Cambodia scheduled and oversaw the first of Cambodia’s elections following the Paris Peace Accords, which led to the adoption of Cambodian’s constitution.  Under the constitution, Cambodia was established as a constitutional monarchy with the prime minister as head of the government and a bi-cameral parliament.  The 123-members of the National Assembly (the lower house of parliament) are elected every five years by universal suffrage through a proportional representation system.  Every six years, the National Assembly and commune councilors at the local level elect the 57 members of the Senate (upper house).  The last parliamentary elections were held in 2008, with the CPP winning 58.11 percent of the vote and 90 of the 123 seats.

The Elections at a Glance 

  • The official campaign period began one month before the elections on June 27, 2013.

  • There are eight political parties competing in these elections.

  • There are approximately 9.6 million registered voters.

  • According to the NEC, as of July 11, 2013, more than 20,000 national and 40 international elections observers had registered to observe the elections.  Registration remained open until July 18 for national observers and July 25 for international observers.

Political Parties Competing 

  • Cambodian People’s Party led by Prime Minister Hun Sen

  • Cambodia National Rescue Party led by Sam Rainsy

  • Funcinpec Party led by Princess Norodom Arun Rasmey

  • League for Democracy Party led by Khem Veasna

  • Cambodian Nationality Party led by Seng Sokheng

  • Democratic Republic Party headed by Sokroth Sovan Panhchakseila

  • Khmer Anti-Poverty Party led by Daran Kravanh

  • Khmer Economic Development Party led by Huon Reach Chamroeun

Electoral Environment Based on a January 2013 national public opinion survey of Cambodia, conducted by the International Republican Institute (IRI), more than 80 percent of respondents believed that Cambodia is currently headed in the right direction, and many credited this to construction of new roads, schools and health care clinics across the country.  These improvements have been a result of economic growth in Cambodia, but also sustained international assistance and illegal practices, which Hun Sen and the CPP have been able to capitalize on to garner support.  Corruption and human rights violations, including land grabbing, remain rampant and the current regime has engaged in a series of measures to disenfranchise voters and stifle any opposition. A recent report by domestic and international organizations highlights the significant discrepancies in the voter registry and indicates that approximately 10 percent of Cambodian voter’s names were deleted or are missing from official registration lists, which will deny them the ability to vote on July 28; an audit of the voter list conducted by Cambodia’s NEC and released on July 11 confirmed these findings.  The Report on the Voter Registry Audit in Cambodia by the National Democratic Institute also shows that nearly 20 percent of the names on the voter registry are either invalid or unverified. The CPP has also monopolized mass media, limiting opposition campaign spots on television and proposed banning international radio broadcasts in Khmer during the campaign period.  Although this ban was swiftly overturned due to international pressure, another ban censoring all foreign media that report survey or poll results five days prior to the elections remains in place. In another bold-faced attempt to intimidate the opposition, 29 opposition parliamentarians were expelled by the CPP in early June for violating ‘internal procedures’ that prohibit members from belonging to more than one political party; the ousted parliamentarians had been elected as representatives of either the Sam Rainsy Party, Human Rights Party or the Norodom Ranariddh Party, but joined other political parties as a result of mergers during their terms.  Consequently, they lost their salary, parliamentary immunity and title just prior to the campaign period.  The fate of these members has drawn international condemnation.  Furthermore, the CPP has also made accusations specifically against CNRP leader Kem Sokha, including that he denied the existence of a Khmer Rouge era prison, which led to protests against him and the CNRP.  Yet the recent royal pardon and return of Sam Rainsy may serve to bolster the CNPR ahead of the elections. In response to the contentious pre-electoral environment, the United Nations special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia has stated that if the government of Cambodia does not address these issues the elections will not meet international standards and will thus be deemed unfair.  The United States has also warned that if Hun Sen does not take steps toward reform, U.S. aid to Cambodia will be in jeopardy. IRI in Cambodia IRI began working with political parties in Cambodia in 1992 in anticipation of United Nations-sponsored elections in May 1993.  Since that time, IRI has assisted with political party strengthening and youth empowerment, conducted election monitoring, media and civil society development, public opinion research, and promoted legal reform. IRI currently works with political parties to share international best practices so parties are better able to represent the interests of their constituents; and with youth to strengthen their leadership skills and abilities and provide them the tools to be active and effective leaders.  In addition, IRI continues to support the Youth Council of Cambodia, a local civil society organization which promotes greater youth activism and fosters youth participation in political processes.

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