An updated study that categorizes countries based on the fairness of their elections has placed Cambodia’s “failed” 2013 poll firmly in its bottom tier, ranking it the worst in the Asia-Pacific region and among the bottom 10 in the world.
Stifling of the opposition, manipulation of voter registration and unfair campaign financing—common criticisms of Cambodia’s last national election—are key chokepoints in the study by the Electoral Integrity Project, based out of Harvard University and the University of Sydney.
Researcher Pippa Norris, a Harvard lecturer and the project’s head, describes an electoral autocracy as one in which “having elections legitimizes the government, but they can manipulate the result.”
“If you’re a dictator thinking about this, the easiest way is to make sure your opponent is in some way not allowed to stand,” Norris says in a recorded interview posted online by the university earlier this year.
Silencing opposition voices by imprisoning them “on basically trumped up charges” for example, is “much more effective…than to stuff ballots and more overt things like that,” she says.
In Cambodia, the ruling CPP is accused of prosecuting and imprisoning opposition figures through politically motivated charges, including CNRP President Sam Rainsy and Vice President Kem Sokha. Mr. Rainsy is in France to avoid prison; Mr. Sokha is in hiding at the party’s Phnom Penh headquarters to avoid arrest.
The electoral project has ranked the fairness of elections in 153 countries, going back to 2012. Cambodia’s 2013 election, broadly categorized by the project as “failed,” ranks in the bottom 10 in the world and worst in the the Asia-Pacific region—faring worse, even, than one-party communist states such as Laos and Vietnam.
Cambodia has more dysfunctional electoral procedures than such states, and suffers from what Ms. Norris describes as two of the biggest obstacles to fair elections: ruling-party control over television broadcasts, and unequal and corrupt campaign financing.
Both of these issues remain unaddressed ahead of Cambodia’s upcoming commune elections next year and general election in 2018, observers say.
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, or Comfrel, endorsed the project’s assessment, saying the CPP has historically filled its campaign war chest with an assortment of state resources, putting the opposition at a gross disadvantage.
“The CPP uses not only a huge amount of its own finances, but also an excessive use of state resources for its own gain, such as armed forces, vehicles, state buildings and the national budget,” Mr. Panha said.
“There’s intimidation, unfair competition, unresolved disputes …. There has been the use of armed forces to suppress the opposition’s freedom of expression,” he said. “There’s a big gap between the parties’ campaign media and campaign finances.”
Likewise, CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said he agreed “all the way” with the study’s findings and pointed to the 2014 political deal in which the CNRP acquired a license to set up its own TV station as a key part of the resolution that ended months of protests and a parliamentary boycott over the previous year’s election results.
Television remains a key source of news for Cambodians, but is controlled almost entirely by the CPP and its allies.
The CNRP’s TV ambitions stalled after authorities in Kandal province banned the party from erecting an antenna in April, saying residents around the intended site had complained. The opposition questioned how quickly the authorities, including Takhmao City governor Heng Thiem, had acted to quash the proposal.
“Political motivations were behind the interruption of the TV plan,” Mr. Sovann said this week.
Obstacles faced by political opponents seeking an even media playing field are just one part of how elections fail, according to the Electoral Integrity Project, which looks at the long sequence of preparations that lead up to voting day.
The project polled dozens of experts about 49 specific aspects of elections. The experts for Cambodia were surveyed after the 2013 vote, and the country received an initial rank of 69 out of 73 states worldwide. After updating the rankings to include an additional 80 countries, Cambodia now ranks 145 out of 153.
Max Groemping, one of the project’s researchers, said Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC) had been a particular black spot.
The election body “was perceived as being not very impartial; not performing professionally; nor making their work transparent,” Mr. Groemping said in an email.
Ms. Pippa, the project lead, explains in her interview that there are opportunities throughout the electoral process for autocratic regimes to thwart free elections.
“If you think about an election from the very beginning, from how you set up your election board, through to registration, party registration, campaign, the media, the money, vote counts, right through to the outcome—each of those is a chain,” she says.
“And what people are doing is manipulating one part or another across the chain to make sure they get back in office.”
Cambodian authorities, however, recoiled at the project’s assessment of the 2013 election.
Hang Puthea, the NEC’s spokesman, said the electoral body had been reformed into a bipartisan committee, and voter registrations were being redone.
“Nothing is perfect,” Mr. Puthea said, but “the upcoming election will be better than the previous election.”
Asked if he wanted to review the project’s findings, he replied, “I’m busy.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan criticized Mr. Panha’s claim that state resources help the party win elections. “Are you an idiot, making such an assessment?” he said.
“Koul Panha doesn’t think about the law; he uses emotions and feelings to make his assessments. That isn’t fair,” Mr. Eysan said.
Current laws already prevent the misuse of state resources and the armed forces, the spokesman said. Moreover, campaign media and financing are the responsibilities of the respective parties, and the CPP has been around longer, he said.
“It’s not like in boxing, where if you’re heavier you’re asked to lose some weight,” he said.