WASHINGTON DC - Six months out from an election, neither a political compromise nor a royal pardon will be enough to put opposition leader Sam Rainsy back in the race this year, a prominent election observer says.
Sam Rainsy is in exile facing criminal charges he says are politically motivated. The National Election Committee has removed his name from the voter registry and the criminal convictions against him make him ineligible to run in the July 2013 election.
The US has said it is disappointed in the developments and that it could hurt the legitimacy of the election.
“This will severely affect the participation of Mr. Sam Rainsy,” Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, told “Hello VOA” Thursday.
Sam Rainsy faces 12 years in prison if he returns to Cambodia, on charges stemming from the destruction of border markers in Svay Rieng province in 2009.
Koul Panha said these are not serious crimes and that under Cambodian law a convicted criminal is not allowed to vote while in prison. The removal of his name from the voter registry was unlawful, he said.
“If his name is on the list, he can vote, and if he want to be a candidate, he can,” he said. “This point has been controversial, that the NEC and the commune council removed His Excellency Sam Rainsy’s name from the voter list.”
The international community has called for reform of Cambodia’s election procedures and will be watching to see whether this year’s election is free and fair, Koul Panha said.
That includes participation of voters, registration, and irregularities on the voter list. It also includes participation of political parties and whether they can operate freely. Other issues include the use of state resources and civil servants in the process, as well as access to media.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party, which won 90 of 123 National Assembly seats in the last election, still controls much of the country’s media, Koul Panha said.
In the run-up to the election, Cambodian politicians should look to the US presidential election last year, which created a “culture of dialogue” between the incumbent Barack Obama and his challenger, Mitt Romney, Koul Panha said. “It is a good habit in the democratic process that the ruling party and the opposition party must mutually respect each other.”
Sam Rainsy has been named the head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, a new party that will contest the election with members of the two current opposition parties.
Cambodian voters no longer fear violence or death, as they have in elections past, Koul Panha said. But they do fear that they will not be supported in the community and could be quietly punished by the CPP-influenced police, military and civil servants.
This has created an “atmosphere of fear” that will affect their freedom to vote their wills, he said.