Reacting to criticism from the CNRP and other organizations, Cambodia’s top election body on Sunday defended its support of a ban on election marches along prominent public areas of Phnom Penh, saying it was for public safety.
The National Election Committee (NEC) has also been forced to explain its decision to print about 1.5 million extra ballots for the June 4 commune election.
Both moves prompted one analyst on Sunday to raise fresh questions about the neutrality of the committee.
In a letter dated April 28, Phnom Penh municipal governor Pa Socheatvong told Meas Chhor Poan, head of the Phnom Penh Election Commission—the local branch of the NEC—to inform political parties that they would not be allowed to hold marches or rallies along major roads, parks, and markets in the capital during the two-week campaign period beginning May 20.
The ban encompasses seven public parks, including those abutting the Royal Palace, Wat Phnom, and Independence Monument; six markets, including Thmei, O’Russei, and Toul Tom Poung; and sections of nine roads including Norodom, Russian, Monivong and Preah Sihanouk boulevards.
The measures were designed to protect “public order” and reduce traffic backups, according to City Hall spokesman Met Measpheakdey.
“The aim, as we have clearly stated in the letter, is to protect and keep public order and, most importantly, to avoid traffic congestion,” he said.
Mr. Chhor Poan said the NEC had already passed on the directive to the parties, citing election law guidelines requiring parties to maintain public order while campaigning.
Violators would face actions proportionate to the severity of their crimes, he said.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the ruling party fully supported the measures, blaming the opposition for rallies that had gotten out of hand in the past, particularly during the 2013 national election campaign.
“It was messy and chaotic—messy everywhere, and it especially came from the opposition party,” he said, describing scenes of rival party supporters berating and chucking bottles of water at each other.
Though opposition supporters squared off with authorities on several occasions after the vote in 2013, the election campaign in Phnom Penh passed without major clashes.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann called City Hall’s rules unreasonable and said officials had nothing to fear from campaign rallies. He said the restriction would deprive voters along the banned thoroughfares from political participation.
“If a ban is enforced along some roads, the people along those roads have no opportunity to hear the political message,” he said, adding that the party would await CNRP President Kem Sokha’s return from the U.S. before charting its reaction.
But Mr. Chhor Poan said the concerns around marches were overblown, saying the parties had many means of reaching voters.
“I think that the campaign is not just parades,” he said. “There are many means [of reaching voters], such as distributing leaflets, conducting meetings, concerts, sport competitions and so on.”
Sam Kuntheamy, head of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Nicfec), said authorities had enough resources to manage marches safely without banning them entirely.
“In the law, political parties can freely conduct campaigns,” he said.
In a statement released on Wednesday, the NEC also defended its printing of 9.4 million ballots for the 7.9 million registered voters, after election monitors, including Nicfec, questioned the rationale and transparency behind the 1.5 million extra ballots.
In the statement, the NEC claimed the backup ballots were necessary for various election day mishaps: printing errors, ballots accidently being torn by election officials during distribution or voters mistakenly ticking a candidate whom they don’t support.
Each polling station would have between 50 to 99 extra ballots, the statement said, with unused ballots slated to be torn up or punched with holes.
Mr. Kuntheamy questioned why the NEC had printed 20 percent more ballots than there were voters, compared to the roughly 5 percent reserve in other countries where he had conducted monitoring.
“I’m unsure about the transparency of using additional ballots,” he said.
The extra ballots might be used by unscrupulous polling station workers to fake votes for the ruling party, the CNRP’s Mr. Sovann said.
“We warned our party representatives everywhere, at any polling stations, to pay very close attention to the ballot,” he said.
An NEC spokesman could not be reached for comment on Sunday.
Mr. Sovann voiced similar concerns in the runup to the 2013 national elections, when the NEC printed 2.5 million reserve ballots.
The CNRP and election monitors said that vote was marred by irregularities—allegations that eventually brought voters to the streets of Phnom Penh and the CPP to the negotiating table.
Reform of the nine-member NEC, which the opposition long claimed to be in the clutches of the ruling party, into what the opposition hoped would be a bipartisan body was one of the key concessions granted by the ruling party in 2014.
But those wishes seem to have been partially dashed in January last year, with the body reappointing Tep Nytha, a former CPP member who has overseen elections since 2002, as its secretary-general. Meanwhile, Ny Chakrya, a former rights worker selected to become the body’s deputy secretary-general in January, served less than four months in the role before his arrest and jailing in the Adhoc 5 bribery case that rights NGOs and the CNRP have slammed as politically motivated.
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay said the body’s recent decisions raised questions about “whether the ruling party especially let it be independent.”
“It seems that its recent decisions have sown some doubts among the public of [whether] it’s really independent as it was created to be,” he said. “I think they haven’t changed so much.”