An official from the National Election Committee (NEC) said Monday opposition leader Sam Rainsy could still be allowed to run as a candidate and vote in the national election on July 28 if he formally asks the body to reinstate him.
Mr. Rainsy was granted a Royal Pardon at the behest of Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday, allowing him to return to the country without fear of arrest over an 11-year prison sentence on convictions widely considered to have been politically motivated.
However, doubts remained over whether or not Mr. Rainsy, in his role as president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), would be allowed to run as a candidate in the election because he had already been removed from the voter list and was not put forward as a parliamentary candidate due to his criminal convictions.
“In case [Sam Rainsy] submits a request with the National Election Committee, the nine members of the NEC have the jurisdiction and the right to consider giving him candidate status and the right to vote or not,” said Keo Phalla, director of the NEC’s legal service department.
Mr. Phalla explained that the NEC could make a decision to allow Mr. Rainsy to fully participate in the election, even though the deadline to enlist as a voter and a candidate had already passed.
“Sam Rainsy’s name was deleted from the voting list and from the party candidate list because he was a convict,” he said. “But now he has received the King’s Pardon, so he can send a request asking the National Election Committee” to reinstate him.
NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha said Monday that Mr. Rainsy had already missed the deadline to register as both a voter and a candidate, though he referred questions on whether or not legal avenues were still open to Mr. Rainsy to the nine elected members of the NEC.
NEC members could not be reached.
Prior to being pardoned on Friday, Mr. Rainsy faced at least 11 years in prison on a raft of charges including destruction of public property for uprooting demarcation posts along the Vietnamese border, disinformation for posting maps online to support claims of Vietnamese encroachment on Cambodian territory and defamation of Foreign Minister Hor Namhong over accusations that he ran a Khmer Rouge prison camp.
Mr. Rainsy has announced that he will return to Cambodia on Friday and said yesterday that he was still looking into the possibility of asking the NEC to reinstate him as both a candidate and a voter.
“My colleagues in Phnom Penh are considering doing this on my behalf,” Mr. Rainsy said in an email from France.
Yim Sovann, spokesperson for the CNRP, said that his party was already holding talks on the matter, but added that Mr. Rainsy has not made a final decision on whether or not he would write to the NEC.
“We have discussed it already but there was no decision yet because we are so busy with preparing his return to welcome him,” Mr. Sovann said.
Surya Subedi, the U.N.’s special rapporteur for human rights in Cambodia, who has long called for NEC reform, yesterday welcomed the Royal Pardon and urged the government to facilitate Mr. Rainsy’s full participation in the election.
“I now hope that with this development, the Government will take the necessary action in order to allow Sam Rainsy to play a full part in the national politics of Cambodia,” Mr. Subedi said in a statement.
“In my last report to the U.N. Human Rights Council on electoral reform, I had reiterated the importance of a level playing field for all political parties to compete on an equal footing, and had called for a political solution to be found to enable Sam Rainsy, as the leader of the opposition, to play a full role in Cambodian politics,” he added.
Independent political analyst Chea Vannath said any decision on behalf of the NEC would likely depend on how fair the government wanted the national election to be.
“It’s a political decision, so anything can happen,” she said. “It would be good for the election if he gets the status back, it would show that Cambodia is democratically mature,” she added.
But Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said the decision was not up to the government as the NEC was an independent body—a claim long contested by observers who point out the NEC is made up primarily of former members of the CPP.
“It depends on him and his lawyer—he has to work for it to get it back.
“But he has the status of a regular citizen back who should have the right to vote,” and thus have the right to run as candidate, Mr. Siphan said.