WHILE the Cambodian opposition party made significant gains in June’s local elections, they did so in a deeply hostile environment, says Human Rights Watch.
In a statement released Monday, HRW claimed the council commune poll held on June 4 – in which the opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) gained 46 percent of the vote – was not free or fair.
Voters went to the polls “in a threatening environment hostile to free speech and genuine political participation,” said the statement, noting constant warnings of potential civil war from ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) figures in the case that they were not victorious.
Human Rights Watch documented that during the campaign and against Cambodia’s electoral laws, local and national news media were strongly biased towards the CPP against the opposition. There is no independent and impartial dispute resolution mechanism.
A recent Amnesty International report claims the government is systematically manipulating the judiciary to silence dissent. Many opposition figures and activists have been jailed or otherwise barred from the political process.
Anti-corruption NGO Transparency International had hundreds of people observing the local elections, and reported that 25 percent of polling stations had “unauthorised personnel” present, including government-appointed village chiefs and police.
Despite the repression of opposition in the lead up to June 4 and reports of electoral fraud, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP still won only 51 percent of the popular vote. The poll saw a record turnout of 85.7 percent of those registered to cast their ballots.
“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,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.
The CPP has increasingly stepped up pressure against activists ahead of next year’s general election, in which Hun Sen aims to extend his more than three decades in power.
International democracy watchdog Freedom House considers Cambodian society and its press to be “not free.” It called violence against CNRP in the wake of the 2013 election a major setback for democracy in the Southeast Asian nation of 15 million.
“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 Adams.
This week, a 68-year-old Australian man was arrested, seemingly for participating in a CNRP campaign rally. The filmmaker was arrested for allegedly posing a threat to national security after flying a drone above the demonstration held on June 2.
“Under no standards anywhere can an election be deemed free or fair where these kinds of problems exist,” said Adams.