Leading up to the 2018 national elections in Cambodia, the government largely under the leadership of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has committed a series of controversial actions that have been met with international criticism. In 2017, new amendments to Cambodia’s Law on Political Parties provided the Interior Ministry with authority to suspend entire parties and the Supreme Court with authority to dissolve them for vague offenses. Subsequently, the government filed a lawsuit against the opposition party, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which resulted in the dissolution of CNRP and a thirty-year prison sentence for the CNRP leader, Kem Sokha, for treason. Likewise, CNRP claims that 5,062 commune councilors and lawmakers lost voting rights. In an effort to monitor political rhetoric, the government also took steps to limit independent radio stations and close independent news outlets. These actions in 2017 suggest CPP led efforts to minimize the “capacity of opposition parties to win office, intentionally infring[ing] on the civil liberties.”
In light of these actions, recent voting metrics suggest CPP has thrived under the changes to the political and legal landscape. At the close of voter registration, two thirds of the voters remained unregistered. In February 2018, CPP won fifty-eight of the sixty-two seats in the Senate by the vote of parliament and commune councilors. Critics suggest the CPP dominated Senate election outcomes may not reflect the desire of the Cambodian people and, instead, are a result of the dissolution of the opposition party. This outcome runs counter to the previous and recent 2017 commune council elections, in which CNRP received more than forty percent of total votes.
Recent challenges in Cambodia’s election process are embedded within a complex political history. In 1991, nineteen governments signed the Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodian Conflict. Commonly known as the Paris Peace Agreement, this treaty promoted national reconciliation and the right of self-determination through free and fair elections. In 1993, the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia administered elections amongst twenty parties forming the coalition government, including the CPP. By 1997, clashes between CPP and CPP’s former partner, the Front uni national pour un Cambodge indépendent, neuter, pacifique et coopérative (FUNCINPEC) party, resulted in the dissolution of the coalition. Since 1993, five national elections have taken place with the sixth election scheduled for July 2018. Amidst these efforts, Prime Minister Hun Sen has remained in office since 1985 with an immense political influence that is bolstered by his allies’ and his interests in Cambodia’s most lucrative industries including finance, energy, tourism, and logging.
Recent events contradict the language in Cambodia’s Constitution. Article 1 asserts the principles of “liberal multi-party democracy.” Article 41 protects citizens’ “freedom of expression of their ideas, freedom of information, freedom of publication and freedom of assembly.” Article 42 protects the “right to establish associations and political parties,” including participation in “mass organizations to work together to protect national achievement and social order.” Article 51 asserts the country’s adoption of a multi-party democracy. Article 31 also recognizes international obligations embodied in the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) and “the covenants and conventions related to human rights, women’s rights and children’s rights,” which include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Both the UDHR and the ICCPR ensure human rights, which include the freedom of expression, assembly, press, and protection against discrimination.
The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Cambodia (UN OHCHR) issued an analysis following the amendment to Cambodia’s laws on political parties. This study questions whether political parties can maintain the multi-party democracy without the human rights protected within the UDHR and the ICCPR. Within a multi-party system, citizens have a political right to form opinions even if they are unpopular. The analysis also asserts that the unclear language for qualifying offenses in the amendment that authorize the suspension and dissolution of a political party violates international human rights standards in the ICCPR regarding certainty in law.
In light of the oppression of political opposition, it is doubtful that the upcoming election can be held with integrity. With the Prime Minister’s public disregard for international recognition of the upcoming elections, international and domestic responses express concern over the violation of civil liberties and human rights. The international community has responded to recent trends towards a single political party system by defunding Cambodia’s election commission. The European Union (EU) and the United States have recently withdrawn funding from Cambodia’s 2018 election commission due to concerns regarding the integrity of Cambodia’s election process. The United States also implemented visa sanctions to those involved in the government’s actions and the EU has suggested future action over duty-free access. The hope is for further international pressure and defunding efforts ahead of the national election.