Foreign Critics Wrong on Candlelight Poll Ban

Supporters of Candlelight Party (CP) shout slogans from a vehicle during a rally on the last day of campaigning for the commune elections in Phnom Penh on June 3, 2022. Photo by TANG CHHIN Sothy / AFP

PHNOM PENH – Cambodian government officials have hit back after a chorus of international criticism over election officials’ refusal to let the Candlelight Party register for the July 23 polls.

The party has been unable to register because of a requirement to submit its original registration documents to the National Election Commission. Copies had been accepted for the 2017 elections.

Party members said they had submitted the originals to the Ministry of Interior, which had given them copies and kept the originals. The party is to appeal to the Constitutional Council.

“The Candlelight Party did its best and had enough documents to submit to the NEC. So we can not accept it because there is no reasonable reason for us to be short of anything,” party vice-president Son Chhay said on May 16.

However, the Cambodian Foreign Ministry blamed Candlelight Party officials for failing to follow election procedures and said no party gets preferential treatment.

US Embassy spokesperson Stephanie Arzate said, “The decision to reject the Candlelight Party's registration - for allegedly failing to submit correct paperwork - undermines Cambodia's democracy ahead of July 2023 national elections.

“Threats and incidents of harassment targeting civil society, independent media, and the political opposition have impeded the right of the Cambodian people to participate in a multiparty democracy.

“We understand the Candlelight Party plans to appeal the decision.

“We urge Cambodian authorities to reopen political and civic space, including ending harassment of opposition parties.”

The German Foreign Office said the decision of Cambodia’s National Election Commission to disqualify the Candlelight Party from July elections runs counter to pluralism and democratic principles.

“The reasons given are not convincing. We hope that due process will be respected and the decision can be reversed.”

Australia said it was deeply concerned. “Cambodian democracy is not served by this development.”

“Australia is and will remain a supporter of Cambodian democracy and development,” it said.

“Multi-party democracy requires there to be political space, laws and institutions that allow political parties to participate and compete fairly on election day.

In Jakarta, ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) condemned what it called the Cambodian government’s continued efforts to undermine and block opposition parties from participating in the elections.

“If it wants the world to take the results of the July elections seriously, the Cambodian government must halt all efforts to hamstring its opponents and instead ensure a space for all parties to participate.”

And the European Union said the refusal of the Cambodian National Election Committee to register the opposition Candlelight Party is another worrying sign of shrinking space for political parties to compete in the upcoming general election.

“The European Union strongly objects to the decision taken today by the Cambodian electoral authority, which adds to depriving Cambodia’s citizens of the right to choose their representatives,” it said.

“Democratic elections demand open, inclusive and credible political competition and citizens to be allowed to freely choose their representatives.”

France said it deplored the exclusion, calling it a troubling signal that undermined the democratic nature of the vote.

The Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) expressed deep concern.

“The disqualification of the Candlelight Party on the grounds of lacking the necessary paperwork is both unjust and disproportionate.” 

The NEC issued a statement on May 15 to the effect that the party had failed to meet the criteria to be legally registered and could not take part in the July 23 elections.

According to the NEC, the party had not submitted the originals of the party’s certificate of registration to be obtained from the Ministry of Interior and certified by the capital, provincial and local administrations.

Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry responded to the foreign criticism by saying politicized remarks by a handful of critics were misleading.

“A political party’s failed registration is solely the result of its non-compliance with the electoral laws, regulations, and notifications of the NEC,” a spokesperson said.

The ministry said every political party had adequate time to apply for documents as the voting date was publicly declared one year in advance.

“The very fact of this registration failure relates to incomplete documentation and such a shortcoming should be borne by that political party’s leadership as admitted by one of its vice presidents.

“The absence of one political party from the electoral process due to its negligence in complying with the legislation does not affect the liberal, pluralistic, and democratic nature of the country as voters are still able to choose freely among at least 18 contesting political parties.”

This article has been edited to add comments from US Embassy.

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