Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

New Policy May Prevent Opposition Candlelight Party From Registering for Elections

A Candlelight Party sign at the party’s new headquarters in Phnom Penh on April 4, 2022. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)
A Candlelight Party sign at the party’s new headquarters in Phnom Penh on April 4, 2022. (CamboJA/Pring Samrang)

The leading opposition Candlelight Party is currently unable to register for the upcoming national elections due to a new policy by the National Election Committee, according to the party’s acting secretary general Kong Monika. 

“We might not be able to register for the election,” Monika told CamboJA. “Without the Candlelight Party joining this upcoming election, it would mean there is no multiple[-party] democracy here in Cambodia, as stipulated in the constitution and the Paris Peace Agreements.”

The opposition party finds itself in a bureaucratic bind that puts its fate in the hands of ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)-controlled government agencies. The party is not registered on the National Election Committee (NEC) website as of Wednesday.

The predicament: Candlelight’s original registration papers were lost following a raid on the party’s headquarters in 2017 and the Interior Ministry has declined to provide them with a new copy. Meanwhile, the government-run National Election Committee overseeing elections has required Candlelight to submit its original document for registration. The deadline to finalize registration for political parties’ and their candidate lists for the July elections is in five days.

“The Cambodian government is making up new bureaucratic obstacles to try to prevent the risk of any real opposition party being able to contest national elections,” exiled opposition leader Sam Rainsy said in a Tuesday Facebook post about Candlelight’s dilemma.

In 2017, authorities shut down the headquarters of Candlelight’s court-dissolved precursor, the CNRP. The original government-issued legal documents recognizing the party and everything else was “lost” and party property inside the headquarters has not been returned, Monika says.

On April 3, Candlelight leaders sent a request to the Interior Ministry to receive certified documentation of the party’s original 1998 government registration as a legal entity. Candlelight was initially registered as the Sam Rainsy Party, later evolving into the CNRP and finally its current state. But the Interior Ministry has not responded to multiple requests in the past month for a re-issued certified copy of the party’s original registration document, Monika said.

On April 5, the NEC sent Candlelight a letter, viewed by CamboJA, mandating all parties submit their original documentation as part of the registration process.

Monika said he believed the NEC was “intentionally putting pressure” on Candlelight and changed the election registration requirements because it knew the party lacked its original registration document.

A motorist drives past the National Election Committee office in Phnom Penh on April 11, 2022. (CamboJA /Pring Samrang)

Last year, the Candlelight Party was able to participate in the commune elections using a black and white photo-copy of its old registration and won around one-fifth of the popular vote. When the party switched its name from CNRP to Candlelight Party, they also received a new registration which also appeared to be accepted at the time, said co-Vice President Son Chhay.

“This got approval from the Interior Ministry, and that document was accepted for the commune election,” Chhay said. 

Since early April, Candlelight leadership have requested meetings with Interior Minister Sar Kheng but have received no response or “clear instruction,” Monika said. 

Interior Ministry spokesperson Khiev Sopheak claimed the Interior Ministry was not responsible for Candlelight’s missing document. 

“I don’t know how to answer, because I am not responsible for that case and that [issue] is not under the authority of the Ministry of interior,” Sopheak said.

But the NEC’s own letter notes the Ministry issues the document legally recognizing political parties.

“The political party must attach a certified copy of a political party registration from the Ministry of Interior,” states an unofficial English translation of the April 5 letter, issued in Khmer.

Monika said Candlelight also submitted reports to Tonle Bassac and Chak Angre Leu police posts in Phnom Penh, requesting help in finding the party’s registration documents which may have been confiscated during the 2017 raid on party headquarters. But police have “rejected” these requests, he claimed. Police at the two posts could not be reached for comment and Phnom Penh Municipal Police spokesperson San Sokseyha did not respond to requests for comment.

Candlelight plans to submit its candidate lists and registration documents to the NEC on May 5 or 7, said Monika, noting the NEC would then allow one additional week to make any corrections needed. 

If the necessary registration letter is not provided by the Interior Ministry before then, the Candlelight Party could officially be disqualified from participating in the elections by mid-May, Monika acknowledged.

NEC spokesperson Hang Puthea said 10 parties — but not Candlelight — have already completed their registration. The NEC’s website shows that as of May 1 the CPP and six minor political parties have been approved to participate in the elections.

When asked about Candlelight’s difficulties in registering, Puthea said he was not sure about the problem.

“The information I got since yesterday [Tuesday] is that this party [ CLP] has not yet registered and I will get back to you [CamboJA] because I am following this information too,” Puthea said. “I need 10 minutes to check with my colleague about what kind of document the Candlelight Party does not have.”

He did not provide clarification and did not respond to additional requests for comment.

Kang Savang, monitoring and advocacy program coordinator of the election monitoring NGO Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), said that if the NEC changed any conditions for party registration, all political parties should be provided with comprehensive information and request that the Interior Ministry provide the necessary documentation when needed.

“In 2022 Candlelight party participated in the commune elections, which means this party already completed its process with the NEC, so it should not be an obstacle to register for the upcoming national elections in 2023,” Savang said. “It would be an unbelievable case if that copy document cannot be used.”