Commune Poll Flaws Test 2023 Vote: UN Envoy

This combined photo shows UN Special Rapporteur Vitit Muntarbhorn (L) and Cambodia Permanent Representative to the UN at Geneva An Sokkhoeurn (R). Photo: Permanent Representativ to the UN at Geneva Facebook and Thmey Thmey

PHNOM PENH – The UN envoy on human rights in Cambodia says irregularities in the June commune election tested the challenge of free and fair election in the lead-up to the national election in 2023.

Special Rapporteur Vitit Muntarbhorn called on the government to secure the political and civic space in advance of the elections and to guarantee a true multiparty system.

Vitit spoke during the 51st Human Rights Council session of the UN in Geneva on Oct. 5. It was his second report on human rights in Cambodia.

He raised concerns over the severely shrunken civic and political space, particularly with regard to political opponents and those who support human rights.

Vitit highlighted the landmarks of the commune election, reflecting the situations and concerns for the upcoming national election.

The report said that the National Election Committee (NEC) was rigged in favor of the ruling party as a considerable number of candidates – particularly those from the Candlelight Party – were delisted in 2022 and so banned from participating in the election “under questionable circumstances”.

Around 200 potential candidates had been delisted by May 2022, Vivit's report said, adding that many complaints regarding harassment and intimidation of candidates were from the political opposition.

In the 5th commune election, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won 9,376 seats, while the Candlelight Party took 2,198, out of 11,622 seats in 1,652 communes, FUNCINPEC came in third with 19 seats, followed by the Khmer National United Party with 13.

The Grassroots Democratic Party won six and the Cambodia National Love Party won five. The Cambodian Youth Party won three. The Kampucheaniyum Party and the Beehive Social Democratic Party won one each.

Nearly 7.4 million people or 80.32 percent cast their votes, while more than 7.2 million valid ballots and 160,000 invalid ballots were cast, according to NEC.

“In essence, the 2022 commune elections took place peacefully and there were no major allegations of violations. There was a glimmer of diversity in political participation and in the results, which opened the door to the limited number of seats won by the opposition,”

“However, the whole scenario was subject to the constrained civic and political space, compounded by the predominating power monopoly in the country,” the report said.

Many irregularities were reported during the election period regarding attempts by some groups to influence the voting process, including officials at polling places, the recording of voters' names, the provision of transport to get voters to the polls, and house visits that influenced voters' decisions. The NEC received from those involved in the elections for investigation.

“The commune elections dealt with above are a clarion call for not only re-enfranchising party membership and political entitlement, but also testing the challenge of free and fair elections as a precursor to the national elections in 2023,” the report said.

Permanent Representative to the UN at Geneva An Sokkhoeurn said the report did not set the record straight. It contained “subjective and selective particulars.” He said the points raised about the delisting of the candidates lacked clear content.

“The truth is the rulings were issued in a strict adherence to the communal election law and on the basis of concrete evidence, testimonies, and confession vis-à-vis their falsified documents and incitement of discrimination, violence, and hatred,” he said in a statement dated Oct. 6.

Sokkhoeurn said the NEC handled complaints without discrimination, while the nine members of the NEC remained bipartisan and apolitical, saying pluralism in Cambodia has been maintained and the power in Cambodia was elected in a constitutional and democratic manner by the majority of the population in 2018.

“Human rights are rarely about perfection, rather a marathon, and progress. To fair and moderate observers, Cambodia is viewed as a half-full glass as we heard from the overwhelming majority of delegation in this council,” he said, adding that Cambodia would hold firm its commitment to cooperation with all partners.

Following the election, some parties praised the procedures, while others were critical, claiming that the process had not improved in every way.

The Candlelight Party (CLP) claimed that its observers were threatened and that the election was not free and fair, prompting legal action.

The CPP and NEC also sued the vice president of the CLP Son Chhay for defamation. On Oct. 6, the court ordered him to compensate $2,250 and write an apology letter to the NEC. Chhay also has to pay $2000 to the national budget and $750,000 to the CPP.

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