Candlelight Party logo (Source: Facebook page).

PHNOM PENH, CAMBODIA — Cambodia’s election body on Monday refused to register the main opposition party and chief challenger to Prime Minister Hun Sen for upcoming national elections.

The National Election Committee said in a statement that the opposition Candlelight Party (CP) had failed to submit certain documents, so it would not be permitted to contest the 23 July vote.

Hun Sen is one of the world’s longest-serving leaders and critics and rights groups accuse him of using the legal system to crush opposition to his rule, particularly in the run-up to elections.

The CP — seen as the only viable challenger to Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) — told AFP they would appeal to “restore a democratic base.”

If the ruling is upheld, it will pave the way for the CPP to effectively compete in a one-horse race when Cambodians vote in July.

The CP gained traction in last year’s local elections, claiming 22 per cent of the popular vote, and was planning to challenge the CPP in every constituency in the national polls.

‘Unreasonable’ ban

Party spokesperson Kimsour Phirith told AFP the ban was “unreasonable because we already have grassroots support.”

“It is difficult for Cambodia to walk the path of plural-party democracy because we cannot compete in the elections,” he said.

Rong Chhun, a prominent candidate who planned to directly challenge Hun Sen, was disqualified last week due to a previous conviction for incitement.

Other key CP candidates are embroiled in criminal cases they say are politically motivated while scores of opposition activists have recently defected to Hun Sen’s camp.

Hun Sen has threatened CP leaders with “prison” if they rally supporters and protest the ban.

Some 9.7 million Cambodians have registered to vote for 125 MPs in the National Assembly.

Hun Sen is aiming to extend his 38-year rule of Cambodia and has publicly backed his son Hun Manet to lead the kingdom in the future.

In 2018, his party won every seat in national elections after the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was dissolved.

In March this year, CNRP leader Kem Sokha was sentenced to 27 years in jail and placed under house arrest for treason over an alleged plot with foreigners to topple Hun Sen’s government.

Another opposition figure, Sam Rainsy, has been living in exile in France since 2015 to avoid jail for convictions he says are politically motivated.

— AFP

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