Discussions inside the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) continued over the weekend on whether to withdraw from next month’s national election due to a series of disruptions on opposition rallies and the failure of the government to reform the country’s electoral process, a party spokesman said Sunday.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said that a boycott of the national election is still “an option” and that party leaders would announce their final decision on whether to participate in the July 28 vote at a press conference on Thursday.
“We cannot make a decision now…. We have to decide what our M.P.s [members of Parliament] want because they [the CPP] disrupt our meetings and destroy our sign boards, so this contributes to a very unproductive environment for elections,” Mr. Sovann said, adding that a decision by the CNRP not to participate would lead to increased international scrutiny on the ruling CPP.
“If we do not participate in elections, the international community and U.N. will not recognize this kind of government, so Cambodians will question the legality of the government and it is the CPP who will lose,” he said.
Still, Yem Ponhearith, deputy spokesman for the CNRP, said there was a good chance the CNRP would contest the election.
Kem Sokha, the acting president of the party who is currently visiting Tokyo, and Sam Rainsy, the self-exiled party president who resides in France, spoke over the phone on Saturday and decided that most members of the CNRP were in favor of contesting the ballot, he said.
“The Cambodia National Rescue Party will join the country’s election on July 28 but starting from now on, if there are still disruptions, fraud and discrimination we will not accept the results of the election,” Mr. Ponhearith said.
Speaking via video-link to an audience at CNRP headquarters in Phnom Penh on Sunday morning, Mr. Rainsy said that unless the government made a series of election reforms, including the securing of his own return to the country, the CNRP would not recognize the legitimacy of the results.
“We will not take part in ridiculous elections along with the CPP without change from the NEC [National Election Committee]. Sam Rainsy will not support or accept the result of the elections and we will demand a re-election according to the recommendations of the United Nations,” Mr. Rainsy said.
Clarifying his position, Mr. Rainsy said in an email that the CNRP remained “open to all options,” but would likely wait to boycott the results of elections rather than not participating in them.
“In spite of the prospects for a rigged election on July 28, we are confident that, given the unprecedented popular support enjoyed by the united democratic opposition, we will be in a position to be heard and heeded,” Mr. Rainsy said.
“We are making sure that the international community will deny any legitimacy to any government stemming from such illegitimate election,” he added.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said a decision by the opposition to boycott the election would only undermine the democratic process currently under way in the country.
“If they decide not to take part in general election that decision will offend their supporters. They have worked so hard to challenge and participate in a democratic process,” he said. “Cambodians as a country, as a nation absolutely want democracy to go on. We want a fair and just voting system with opposition parties taking party in the election.
“The opposition people are looking for their own power. They are missing the people’s power to go out to vote. We must respect them.”
In its demands for reform, the CNRP has pointed to the findings of Surya Subedi, the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, who has previously called for change within the NEC, which is currently stacked with members of the CPP, and for fair access to mass media, which is almost completely dominated by the ruling party.
Other reforms demanded by the opposition include the creation of a new voter list—the National Democratic Institute (NDI) found in March that more than 1 million eligible voters have been left off official voter rolls—along with the enforcement of laws that ban the use of state resources in political campaigning.
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said that technically, the CNRP cannot withdraw at this point in the election process, but can call on voters not to show up on election day.
“They cannot ask the NEC to take their name off the ballot. They made their final decision to participate, but they want to send a warning message to the ruling party that they feel that this current election is not free and fair,” he said.
While the CNRP would be unlikely to gain anything through a boycott of the election, they may be able to ratchet up pressure on the government by threatening a boycott, said Laura Thornton, resident director of the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute in Cambodia.
Still, “It can be risky because if you are telling voters you might boycott, it can confuse them,” she said.
In a policy paper for Washington-based Brookings Institute titled Threaten but Participate: Why Election Boycotts are a Bad Idea, Matthew Frankel spells out the quandary faced by opposition parties within a political framework dominated by the ruling party.
“If the opposition party decides to participate, it is highly unlikely that it will win, given the high levels of fraud and fear that often accompany elections in these countries. Additionally, opposition participation serves to legitimize the election for the outside world, regardless of how fairly it is conducted,” Mr. Frankel writes.
“On the other hand, choosing to boycott guarantees election victory to the ruling party, further entrenching it in place. The boycott might remove the veneer of democratic legitimacy of the ruling regime, but as we have seen, it doesn’t change the facts on the ground,” he added.
However, independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay said Sunday that Cambodia’s opposition parties have made little headway in encouraging democratic reform through participating in elections in the past.
“Considering the number of conditions not conducive to free and fair elections, including pressure on the opposition, perhaps [a boycott] might be possible so as not to lend legitimacy to an electoral process which is very much flawed,” he said.