Updated: The Candlelight Party will not be allowed to participate in the national elections, Cambodia’s Constitutional Council ruled on Thursday.
“The Constitutional Council decided to accept [Candlelight’s] appeal…but it was denied as illegitimate and contrary to the law,” council president Im Chhun Lim announced. “This is a final decision and there can be no further complaint.”
Chhun Lim, who is also a ruling CPP Central Committee member, said that Candlelight didn’t provide its original, Interior Ministry-issued certificate of registration as a political party under articles 27 and 31 of the electoral law.
“The Candlelight Party and Khmer United Great Nation Party cannot join the upcoming elections,” Constitutional Council’s deputy secretary general and spokesperson Prom Vicheth Akara said during a press conference.
The council of nine, composed of five ruling CPP members, had reached a unanimous decision and found the NEC had correctly complied with electoral laws in denying Candlelight’s registration, Akara added.
Akara stated that 18 other political parties were approved to participate in the July 23 national elections because they had submitted all their required documents to the NEC.
“I would like to verify that there is not one party running in the election, but there are 18 political parties running in the upcoming elections,” Akara said. “So the principle of a democracy multiple-party is still fully guaranteed as mandated in the constitution.”
In last year’s commune elections, Candlelight earned more than 1.6 million votes representing 22.25% of the popular vote, leading to 2,198 commune councilor seats.
The ruling CPP won 74.32% of the popular vote. The remaining opposition parties earned 3.43% of the vote. The third-place party, FUNCINPEC, won 19 commune councilor seats.
The Khmer United Great Nation Party — which did not participate in last year’s commune elections — could not be reached for comment.
“Without the Candlelight Party joining this upcoming election…there is no multiple[-party] democracy here in Cambodia, as stipulated in the constitution and the Paris Peace Agreements,” the party’s acting secretary general Kong Monika has told CamboJA.
Monika directed comments about the council’s decision to Candlelight spokesperson Kimsour Phearith, who expressed disappointment.
“It is their discretion but we are saddened because we have known ourselves as a legitimate party because we participated in the 2022 commune council elections,” he said. “It should also be that way for the national elections.”
“There is not just our party’s disappointment but for citizens who have supported [Candlelight] and hoped to have the party represented in the National Assembly in order to help them,” he added. “We will discuss with party leaders what we will do next.”
A representative from the NGO Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), an election monitoring group, declined to comment on the Constitutional Council’s decision, citing safety concerns.
Ruling CPP party spokesperson Sok Eysan said that the Constitutional Council had implemented the law fairly.
“Democracy in Cambodia depends on Cambodian people, it isn’t based on the Candlelight Party,” he said. “It is the issue of Candlelight which lost documents. The mistake of the party cannot be blamed on others.”
NEC Rejected Registration Due to Lack of 1998 Document
Candlelight had earlier this month filed an appeal to reverse the National Election Committee’s decision to reject the leading opposition party’s registration.
But on May 15 the NEC had claimed that Candlelight “failed to fill out additional documents” needed for registration. Five other parties had been “issued a letter of notification to fill the gaps” in their registration, according to unofficial translation of an NEC statement.
The NEC had mandated Candlelight provide the original copy of a 1998 government document recognizing the party — then called the Sam Rainsy Party — as a legal entity. Yet this document had been confiscated by authorities in a 2017 raid on the headquarters of Candlelight’s precursor, the court-dissolved CNRP, Candlelight leaders have said.
The Interior Ministry had also issued a new registration for Candlelight to change its name from CNRP in 2017.
The Interior Ministry had allowed Candlelight to participate in last year’s sub-national commune elections — in which the party won around one-fifth of the popular vote — using a black and white photocopy of the 1998 document and its new registration.
The Interior Ministry and the NEC had for weeks not directly responded to repeated requests from CamboJA for clarification as to why Candlelight was allowed to register for the commune elections but not the national elections.
After the Constitutional Council’s ruling, Puthea told CamboJA that Candlelight had been allowed to participate in the commune elections because it was a sub-national election and photocopies were acceptable for registration at the commune level.
“The NEC needed only photocopies and confirmation of the party’s name with the Interior Ministry,” for the commune elections he said, explaining that it is “too much and difficult” for political parties to register separately with their original documents in each of the 1,652 communes they sought to contest.
Puthea said that for the national elections, parties registered directly with the NEC at the national level and therefore were required to submit original paperwork.
“It is a serious matter, because it is a parliamentary election towards building a government,” Puthea said. “In 2023, when the Prime Minister will be chosen, the NEC must take great care to ensure that all parties comply with the rules.”
Puthea claimed that NEC was unaware that the Candlelight did not have the original copy of the declaration when it made this a requirement earlier this year.
Candlelight’s Monika told CamboJA in early May that he believed the NEC was “intentionally putting pressure” on the party and knew the party lacked this document, because Candlelight had reached out to the Interior Ministry on April 3 to receive a re-issued document. The NEC requested the document from the party on April 5.
The Interior Ministry, NEC and Constitutional Council are all headed by members of the ruling CPP’s Central Committee, which decides the party’s policies. Of the Constitutional Council’s nine members, five are registered CPP members.
Interior Ministry spokesperson Khieu Sopheak has claimed his ministry is not responsible for helping Candlelight resolve the bureaucratic dilemma. He also appeared to tell CamboJA, several days before the NEC’s registration deadline, that the ministry had issued the necessary document to Candlelight.
“We gave it to them when they came to register,” Sopheak told CamboJA on May 12. “The original document was already given.”
“Maybe they hid the original document or pawned it at a bank in exchange for money,” he added.
Sopheak has not provided further clarification on the documents provided by the ministry since then and was not immediately available for comment following the Constitutional Council’s ruling.
Following the NEC’s decision, Prime Minister Hun Sen threatened Candlelight Party members with arrest if they protested.
Hun Sen Warns Against Foreign Meddling
In March, the European Union parliament passed a resolution warning that further erosion of democracy in Cambodia could lead to targeted sanctions.
“On behalf of the head of the executive body [government] of the country’s territorial sovereignty, why do you [foreigners] like meddling in internal affairs in my country,” Hun Sen said.
“You have the right to trust me, and not trust me, but I have the right not to trust you,” Hun Sen said. “Don’t interfere in foreign affairs, these are Cambodia’s affairs, and please do not connect Cambodia’s relations with your countries.”
After Candlelight’s initial rejection by the NEC, some embassies issued rebukes of varying intensity.
On May 21, ambassador W. Patrick Murphy tweeted that the US Embassy in Phnom Penh said “the decision to reject the Candlelight Party’s registration… undermines Cambodia’s democracy ahead of the July 2023 national elections.”
The US Embassy has not published any official statement addressing Candlelight Party’s on its website.
The French Embassy stated on May 17 that “France deplores the exclusion” of Candlelight Party from the elections, and said the party’s inability to participate in the elections “undermines the democratic nature of the vote.”
British Ambassador Dominic Williams said on May 16 that he was “disappointed” the NEC rejected the Candlelight’s registration.
Dominic said “This is a disappointing development which weakens the choice available to the Cambodian people and appears to run contrary to the Ministry of Interior’s recent confirmation of the Candlelight Party’s status as a recognised political party.”
The Delegation of the European Union said it “strongly objects” to Candlelight’s disqualification after the NEC’s initial decision on May 15.
The Japanese government stated “it is important to have an environment in which the opinion of the people, whether they are from the ruling party or opposition parties, are widely reflected in the political process.”
This story was updated at 6:00 p.m. following its original publication at 1:05 p.m. to include additional comments from government authorities and Candlelight Party representatives.