Prime Minister Hun Sen has praised the June 5 commune elections, calling them “free and fair” and dismissing the opposition’s allegations of vote rigging and irregularities.
“I would like to thank the people who exercised their rights to choose their favorite leaders,” he said. “This shows the political maturity of Cambodia’s democratic process.”
Speaking to more than 2,000 students at the Royal School of Administration in Phnom Penh on Monday, Hun Sen also commended the National Election Committee (NEC) for its well-run election process – while accusing critics of lying.
“Do you guys [opposition groups] who have accused the NEC of vote-rigging dare to swear to die of lightning?” Hun Sen said.
The Prime Minister also dismissed requests by the Candlelight Party to hold discussions about election reforms ahead of next year’s general election.
The party said last week they wanted talks with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to discuss reforming the NEC to ensure next year’s vote was free and fair.
“Some said they need to talk and negotiate with the ruling party, [but] there is nothing to negotiate. If you want to talk, please talk with NEC, the CPP doesn’t need to talk because [we] are also competitors,” he said.
The Prime Minister’s remarks came the same day as the NEC announced it was taking legal action against the Candlelight Party’s vice president Son Chhay, who had denied that the election was free and fair and accused the NEC of bias towards the CPP.
Referring to Son Chhay’s remarks, the NEC said in a statement: “This claim is unacceptable. It’s a mockery of the will of the voters who turned out.”
“It will affect NEC’s dignity as stated in the constitution and make people lose confidence in NEC,” the statement continued, adding that Son Chhay faces a fine of up to $5,000 for his comments.
Also in his speech, Hun Sen also said no-one could accuse Cambodia of being a one-party state any longer because next year’s national election will likely see more parties join the National Assembly.
“According to [my] prediction, in 2023 there will be more parties gaining seats in the National Assembly,” he said.
Hun Sen’s comments came after the opposition Candlelight Party slammed the commune elections, alleging they were beset by voter suppression and intimidation and calling them “the worst ever.”
Thach Setha, vice president of the Candlelight Party, said politicians should be willing to come to the table for talks.
“They should respect the people’s will because the Candlelight Party also has more than one million supporters,” he said. “If they’re ignored, it causes divisions, so in a democratic country we need to have talks about reforming the NEC.”
Setha confirmed that his party had filed more than 100 complaints related to irregularities during the election. He said some had been solved at the local level while others were thrown out.
NEC spokesman Hang Puthea said throughout the election process the NEC had received 192 cases of irregularities filed by political parties.
Puthea denied claims that the NEC was biased towards the ruling party, saying: “Even if [NEC officials] are from a certain political party, they must adhere to neutrality, which means that they must abide by the NEC’s internal rules.”
He said the body would invite all political parties and stakeholders to join a congress in early July to talk about where improvements could be made ahead of the next election.
But political analyst Em Sovanara said he believes next year’s general elections will be much the same as this year’s.
“The current mechanism of NEC will continue and a so-called free and fair election will be impossible since the recent commune election already presented many irregularities,” he said.
He said this would raise concerns amongst the international community, to which the government would need to respond. Cambodia has been receiving trade benefits from the EU and the US, he pointed out, so they have more leverage to demand reform than local opposition groups.
“The negotiations must be made via the international community because the opposition parties are too small and don’t have enough power to negotiate with the ruling party,” he said. “However, pressure from the international community could push the government to negotiate and allow more freedoms.”
Last week, five election observer organizations released a preliminary report detailing irregularities including the presence of armed forces at polling stations and inadequate efforts to ensure voters were properly registered.
In addition, during the ballot count, at some polling stations observers were banned from entering. At others the windows were closed while ballot counting was underway to block people from watching, and results after counting were not publicly displayed.
According to preliminary results released by the NEC, of the 17 political parties that took part in the June 5 polls, only the CPP and Candlelight Party won commune chief positions—with the CPP taking the lion’s share. Final results are expected on June 26. (Additional reporting by Try Thaney)