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New Cambodian Election Laws Could Undermine Democracy

Sam Rainsy (C), president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), speaks to media after a plenary session at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh, March 19, 2015.

Cambodia's parliament has unanimously passed two controversial election laws following months of negotiations between the ruling party and the opposition.

The ruling Cambodian People's Party and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party applaud the two laws as a broadly successful outcome to months of often tense negotiations following the 2013 general election, a vote the opposition came close to winning and which it claims was riddled with fraud.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy says the two sides are not 100 percent satisfied, but "concessions have been made to have success for both parties."

Others are less positive.

Key concerns

Earlier this week, Human Rights Watch warned the laws would limit freedom of expression and assembly, and could undermine Cambodia’s democracy.

Cambodian civil society groups offer similar criticisms.

The president of the independent research group the Future Forum, Ou Virak, says the Law on the Election of Members of the National Assembly is lengthy, vague and packed with clauses that could be misused.

Among his key concerns: the law allows members of the military to campaign. Cambodia’s military has strong ties to the ruling party, and some of its divisions have been implicated in serious rights abuses.

Ou Virak says the law also restricts civil society.

“And this is civil society in a brush stroke, not just foreign-funded NGOs, but all of civil society. You can not do proper research and disclose it during the campaign period, not public opinion polls, you can not issue statements that could be deemed as insulting to any political party," he says, adding that the law limits civil society’s role during the most important period in a country’s democracy.

“And without the civil society I do not know how you can have vibrant debates, how could you have real observations and injections of different opinions and different interests," he notes. And I think that is going to have huge implications for democracy overall; I think democracy as a whole will be hurt by this new law.”

Some provisions would allow a political party to be struck from the ballot should one of its members break certain rules.

Ou Virak says that provision that would allow a political party to be struck from the ballot should one of its members break certain rules, could easily be abused.

“And in a country like Cambodia, all it needs is for the CPP to find one candidate that surely incited hatred or violated the clause and could remove the whole opposition or they could infiltrate somebody to do that," he says.

Election committee

The other law governs the National Election Committee, whose members have long been accused of partiality towards the ruling party.

The new nine-member NEC will have four members drawn from each party, with an independent ninth person holding the swing vote.

Ou Virak says the new NEC should be an improvement, although from a very low base.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy was quoted by the Phnom Penh Post as saying, "We [would prefer] everything to be perfect, but we can not get success 100 percent on our own," he says.

Ou Virak says the opposition appears to have thought it could make concessions, provided it got four seats on the National Election Committee, and it would win in 2018. That assumption, he says, was mistaken.