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Credibility of Elections at Risk: Monitors

Opposition party leader Sam Raisy, right, claps in front of the National Assembly in Phnom Penh, file photo.
Opposition party leader Sam Raisy, right, claps in front of the National Assembly in Phnom Penh, file photo.

WASHINGTON DC - Cambodia faces the prospect that this year’s national election will not be fully accepted by the West, election monitors say.

With one of the few credible opposition leaders, Sam Rainsy, in exile and facing criminal charges he says are politically motivated, and no political solution so far in sight, the election may not be viewed as free, fair or legitimate, the monitors said.

US officials have already expressed their disappointment in Sam Rainsy’s continued exile and exclusion from the electoral process.

Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, told VOA Khmer that if the opposition leader cannot take part in the election, it could cost Cambodia credibility in the West. “The key is the image of the elected government, especially in the West, and full UN recognition,” he said. “This is still a problem, and also it is not as fully recognized as before.”

Cambodia must reform its democratic process, which is still possible, he said. In fact, Cambodia still has a chance to become a model country that others can learn from, he said.

Cambodia lost its bid last year for a non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council, in part because of the country’s poor records on human rights and democracy, and because it failed to gather enough international support.

The US last week expressed its disappointment with the National Election Committe’s decision to remove Sam Rainsy from the national voter registry. The criminal charges against him, stemming from his destruction of border markers in Svay Rieng province in 2009, make him ineligible to run for office, even though he is the head of the new Cambodian National Rescue Party.

“The exclusion of a leading opposition leader calls into question the legitimacy of the whole democratic process in Cambodia,” Victoria Nuland, a spokeswoman for the State Department, told reporters in Washington last week. “So we’ll continue raising this, and as I said, we are disappointed.”

Tep Nitha, secretary-general for the NEC, defended its decision, saying the committee is following Cambodian law. However, critics say the committee is biased toward the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, hastening its decision to remove Sam Rainsy from eligibility.

Hang Puthea, executive director for the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free Elections, said it is possible that local and international observers alike are now “concerned” with Cambodia’s transition to democracy. But he said Cambodia’s stance toward the West has changed. It has forged a closer relationship with China, which grants large amounts of aid without the requirments of Western donors.

Suon Bunsak, chief secretary for the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, warned against such a shift. A free and fair election is needed in Cambodia, and that can only come with the return of Sam Rainsy, he said.

“So this issue should see a political compromise, to allow the president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party to compete in a democratic process, which is better,” he said.

The national parliamentary elections are slated for July this year. The elections will pit the new opposition against the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, whose lawmakers hold 90 of 123 National Assembly seats, following a sweeping victory in the 2008 elections. The Sam Rainsy Party won 26 seats in that election, and the Human Rights Party won just three. That did not give the opposition enough seats to stop the super majority of the ruling party.