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Cambodia’s Hun Sen violates election law by campaigning early, watchdog says

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is violating election laws by asking for votes during official appearances prior to the start of the country’s campaign season for local elections in June, an electoral watchdog said Wednesday.

Though the general election is more than a year away, and the two-week campaigning period for this year’s June 5 communal elections begins on May 21, Hun Sen is regularly using official appearances to tell crowds why they should back him on the ballot in 2023.

Stumping outside of the official campaign period and while performing state duties is against the country’s electoral law, Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia monitor Kang Savang told RFA’s Khmer Service.

“What happens to the smaller parties that don’t have government positions? Are they able to compete?” he said. “If you are using your government positions to serve a party, that’s called political exploitation.”

Cambodian law prevents government officials from using their positions to serve party interests. They are also prohibited from using the state’s budget, materials, transportation, or other assets to conduct campaigns.

An official with Cambodia’s National Election Commission (NEC) told RFA the electoral body cannot stop Hun Sen from asking for votes outside of the official 14-day campaign period, which is the only time it can address campaign violations. The official did not address concerns related to the prime minister campaigning during official duties.

Ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesperson Sok Ey San confirmed to RFA that Hun Sen’s visits to public places were meant to cultivate votes for the ruling party, but he dismissed claims that doing so is a violation of election rules.

“The CPP is the ruling party. We won’t exploit public appearances while on official government duty, but we are taking advantage of the opportunity because we have achieved results,” he said.

“The CPP president is the prime minister, so presiding over certain ceremonies is a chance to show our achievements to the people.”

Trial continues

The issue of electoral violations also came up Wednesday during the treason trial of former opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) chief Kem Sokha, when prosecutors asked him to account for his party’s adherence to the law ahead of the 2018 ballot.

Kem Sokha refused to answer the questions, saying that the NEC is responsible for deciding whether a party abides by electoral law, his lawyer told RFA.

Kem Sokha’s case centers around an alleged plot backed by the United States to overthrow Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for more than 35 years. The opposition leader was arrested in September 2017 and spent a year in jail before being released under court supervision.

After his arrest, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP in a move that allowed Hun Sen’s CPP to win all 125 seats in Parliament in the 2018 election. The action drew U.S. sanctions and the suspension of trade privileges with the European Union.

“Kem Sokha was the party president. He cannot provide election process information in detail,” Peng Heng, a member of the defense team, told RFA after Wednesday’s session.

During a previous session, government lawyers presented a list of names of foreign citizens who they said were involved in Kem Sokha’s alleged plot to topple Hun Sen.

Peng Heng said the defense may request that the court invite the foreigners to the court to testify.

“We know that during these circumstances, the key is in the CPP’s hands. Kem Sokha can’t initiate anything, but I think if the government, which is led by the CPP, has a will to resolve this political crisis, Kem Sokha would welcome a discussion,” he said.

Soeng Sen Karuna of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (Adhoc) told RFA that if the court is accusing Kem Sokha of colluding with foreign states, it should identify which ones, or move on to providing evidence of other charges against him.

“These off-topic questions will delay the trial. I think we need a way to speed up the case,” he said of the proceedings, which are now in their 36th week.

The case was held up for nearly two years at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Observers have suggested that Hun Sen is trying to force a delay in the trial to weaken the opposition party or cause it to fracture.

Proceedings in the case are scheduled to resume April 20.

Defamation case 

Meanwhile, a provincial court in the western province of Pailin summoned Kem MonyKosal, leader of the opposition Candlelight Party, to appear before the court between April 8 and April 20 on charges of incitement and defamation.

Kem MonyKosal told RFA that the case stems from an election dispute he had with a CPP official, so the court should step aside and let the NEC handle the case. He considers the summons to be a threat.

“This is ridiculous. They are using the court as a pretext to make political intimidation,” he said. “I am afraid for my personal security.”

The Candlelight Party, formerly known as the Sam Rainsy Party and the Khmer Nation Party, was founded in 1995 and merged with other opposition forces to form the CNRP in 2012.

After the CNRP was banned, many former CNRP members joined the Candlelight party, which over the past year has gained steam as supporters believe it can pose a threat to the CPP in the upcoming elections.

Kem MonyKosal only expressed his constitutionally protected vies and committed no crime, Yin Mengly, Adhoc’s coordinator for Pailin province, told RFA.

“This is purely a politically motivated case,” said Yin Mengly.

Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.