Cambodia’s opposition disqualified from election, appeal fails

Cambodia’s Constitutional Council rejects appeal from opposition Candlelight Party to be allowed contest election.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen
Prime Minister Hun Sen's party will have no credible competition in the national election in July following the disqualification of Cambodia's popular opposition party [File: Heng Sinith/AP Photo]

Cambodia’s embattled opposition Candlelight Party has lost its appeal against disqualification from forthcoming national elections, which effectively means the country’s long-ruling leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, will stand unchallenged at the polls in July.

Cambodia’s Constitutional Council, which heard the party’s appeal on Thursday, ruled that the National Election Committee’s (NEC) decision to prevent the opposition from standing in the July election was valid. The decision to exclude the party from the election was final, Reuters news agency reported.

Candlelight Party, a diminished but still popular replacement to the main opposition party that was dissolved by the judiciary in 2017, was last week disqualified from the upcoming election over a registration technicality.

According to Reuters, the nine-member council said the election committee’s disqualification of the party was constitutional.

“On a legal basis, we looked at the facts,” the council’s deputy secretary-general, Prom Vicheth Akara, told a press conference, Reuters reported.

“The NEC decision has complied with the constitution,” he said, adding there were 18 other political parties that had successfully registered for the election.

The NEC had disqualified the Candlelight Party from registering for the election because it had submitted a photocopied document rather than an original copy, according to reports.

“I think that democracy in Cambodia … it’s dead,” Candlelight Party chief Teav Vannol said after the ruling.

“Democracy is dead in Cambodia. That’s how I feel,” he told Al Jazeera.

Candlelight Party leaders will meet to decide their next steps, he said, adding that protests might be considered.

The exclusion from the July election of the sole credible challenger to Hun Sen’s almost 40-year grip on power echoes events of 2017 when the Candlelight’s earlier incarnation – the hugely popular Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) – was banned ahead of the last national election in 2018.

Hun Sen, a former military commander with the rebel Khmer Rouge communist movement, has effectively held power in Cambodia since 1985 and has routinely unleashed waves of repression against political rivals. He says his Cambodian People’s Party will dominate Cambodian politics for up to 100 years and is currently grooming his son to take over power when he retires.

Many Cambodian opposition party members and supporters have fled into exile abroad, many have been convicted in absentia – some in person – in mass trials where they have been accused of treason and colluding with foreigners to topple Hun Sen.

Kem Sokha, a co-founder of the banned CNRP, was found guilty in March of treason and sentenced to 27 years in prison in a court case described as highly politicised. He is currently serving his sentence under house arrest in the capital, Phnom Penh.

Former opposition leader Mu Sochua, who has lived in exile for several years, said after Thursday’s decision to exclude the Candlelight Party from the election “the time to express concern and hope to reform the [Hun Sen] regime is over”.

Mu Sochua called on foreign governments to not recognise the Hun Sen government unless credible elections are held, particularly signatory nations to the Paris Accords that brought an end to major hostilities in Cambodia’s bloody civil war in 1991.

“No free and fair elections, therefore no recognition of the next government,” she said.

Lee Morgenbesser, a professor at Griffith University in Australia, said Hun Sen’s party needed to remove the Candlelight Party as an electoral threat before it had the chance to gain widespread support.

The opposition party was only “allowed to participate to the extent they didn’t become a threat or popular enough, or sufficiently popular”, he said.

Thursday’s decision cements authoritarianism in Cambodia, he added.

“It’s a one-party state with very little political rights and civil liberties, no independent media. At this stage, it’s closer to the North Koreas of the world than democracy,” he said.

“That’s how far along the spectrum it is.”

Reporting by Fiona Kelliher in Phnom Penh.

Source: Al Jazeera