The Asian Forum for Human Rights and Development (FORUM-ASIA) and CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation have issued a joint statement strongly condemning Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC)’s decision to bar the Candlelight Party (CP) – the country’s main opposition party – from contesting in the upcoming general election slated for July 2023.

This decision, they argue, further undermines Cambodian citizens’ democratic right to select their representatives. Both organizations are urging the Cambodian government to halt its purported use of bureaucratic intimidation tactics aimed at silencing dissent and the opposition.

The NEC disqualified CP on grounds of non-compliance with certain documentation requirements, including the absence of original paperwork establishing its registration with the Ministry of Interior.

Among the 18 parties, CP was the only one not approved by the NEC, a move raising concerns given CP’s status as the sole party possessing the necessary public support to challenge the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

Mary Aileen Bacalso, Executive Director of FORUM-ASIA, criticized this decision. “By blocking the main opposition party from running in the upcoming election, using the failure of submitting all required original documents as a pretext, the regime of Hun Sen is demonstrating a complete disregard to upholding the principle of free and fair elections,” she said. “This bureaucratic harassment against the opposition party should not be tolerated. It must end.”

The disqualification of CP contradicts the NEC’s prior decision to allow the party to participate in the local elections in May 2022, despite similar documentation issues. At that time, CP presented a copy of its registration to the Ministry of Interior, as the original document had reportedly gone missing during a 2017 raid of the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s (CNRP) office.

FORUM-ASIA and CIVICUS also highlighted ongoing harassment against CP and its high-ranking members. The current regime has reportedly threatened to dissolve opposition parties, seize their property, and has allegedly permitted physical attacks against opposition members.

This disqualification follows the closure of Voice of Democracy–one of Cambodia’s few remaining independent media organizations–in February 2023, as well as the sentencing of former CNRP leader Kem Sokha to 27 years of house arrest in March 2023.

David Kode, Advocacy and Campaigns Lead of CIVICUS, emphasized the importance of democratic principles. “Democratic elections necessitate open, inclusive, and credible political competition, as well as the freedom of citizens to choose their representatives,” he stated. “Holding free and fair elections will be virtually impossible in this repressive political climate.”

In the background, Cambodia’s NEC refused to register the main opposition party, the Candlelight Party, citing failure to submit certain documents. Critics accuse the country’s long-serving leader, Hun Sen, of using the legal system to stifle opposition, particularly ahead of elections.

The Candlelight Party, having gained 22% of the popular vote in the previous local elections, was preparing to challenge Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party in all constituencies. If the disqualification is upheld, the ruling party may compete unopposed in the July vote.

The opposition has indicated its intention to appeal the decision, aiming to “restore a democratic base.”

With 9.7 million Cambodians registered to vote for 125 MPs in the National Assembly, the implications of this decision could have broad and lasting impacts on the nation’s political landscape.

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