As voter registration began Monday, the opposition National United Front declared a boycott of the July 26 national elections, saying the polls cannot be free and fair.
“The election, if conducted under present conditions, would be illegal and unconstitutional,” a statement from the NUF said Monday. “We reaffirm our commitment to take part in elections, but we will not endorse unfair elections by participating in them.”
The coalition, making good on earlier boycott threats, said its four parties are “eager to participate in elections as soon as possible,” but only if the election date is pushed back at least two months and several conditions are met.
Second Prime Minister Hun Sen scoffed at the announcement, saying the elections would be held as scheduled, with or without the opposition parties.
“I do not think these parties will have enough strength to put pressure on us…to postpone our election date,” Hun Sen said. “I don’t believe the European Union and others will withdraw voting cards and support from Cambodia because of a small group of politicians who boycott.”
Speaking in Takhmau district, where he was registering to vote, Hun Sen said postponing the election would be unfair to voters.
“You can see today that people are flocking to the registration centers,” he told reporters. “Do they all have to wait for a small group of politicians?”
The NUF, made up of Funcinpec, the Sam Rainsy Party, the Son Sann Party and the Cambodian Neutral Party, has been plagued in past weeks by rumors of dissent among its leaders. But the parties apparently united Monday to call for the boycott.
Sam Rainsy, in a telephone interview from Bangkok, said the July 26 election date is “not feasible” because there is not enough time to reverse what he called unfair conditions. He said the elections should still be held this year, “probably in October or November.”
He said the NUF hopes the boycott will cause the international community to pressure the Phnom Penh government to postpone the polls and make changes to ensure the opposition’s participation.
“Without the participation of a credible opposition, the election will be useless and meaningless,” Sam Rainsy said. “I think the international community in general and the Friends of Cambodia in particular will think twice before committing time, money and credibility to organize what is sure to be a fake.”
Since Prince Norodom Ranariddh was ousted as first prime minister last year following bloody battles between government forces loyal to him and to Hun Sen, the international community has been working to secure a place for the prince and other allies in the elections.
International donors are picking up much of the elections’ nearly $27 million price tag, giving them a certain amount of leverage with Phnom Penh.
But it was unclear just how the boycott would affect donors’ support of the election. Officials with the UN and the EU contacted Monday afternoon declined to speculate on the issue.
“I shall need to study the situation very carefully and thoroughly. I cannot make any comment straight off the cuff,” said Sven Linder, chief of the EU’s observation mission for the elections.
Among the conditions the NUF sets for participation in elections:
• The CPP must issue a statement saying that anyone who fixed their thumbprint to CPP voter cards is not required to vote for that party. The thumbprint campaign was recently decried by Thomas Hammarberg, the UN secretary-general’s special representative for human rights in Cambodia, as voter intimidation.
• Ballot counting must take place at the district or provincial level. Prince Ranariddh and Hun Sen recently compromised to have the counting at the communal level, but others in the NUF have not been satisfied with that.
• The Constitutional Council must be formed. The last three members of Cambodia’s highest legal body are set to be named this week, but some have complained that the candidates are CPP-leaning.
• Opposition parties must have their own radio stations operating at least two months before the election date. Media access has long been a bone of contention from opposition parties, who say that the CPP and its allies dominate the airwaves.