The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) on June 14 filed a complaint to the Phnom Penh Municipal Court against Candlelight Party vice-president Son Chhay, demanding $1 million in compensation over his “distortion of the facts” regarding the June 5 commune council elections.

According to CPP attorney Ky Tech, Chhay’s comments – made during a June 7 interview with the online news outlet Cambodia Daily – were acts of “intentional dishonesty”. He said Chhay distorted the truth by creating fake news with a bad intent to slander the CPP, seriously tarnishing its reputation, even though he knew the party had won the elections fairly.

“I ask the court to investigate and to charge and punish Son Chhay in accordance with the law. We demand that Son Chhay pay the CPP four billion riel in compensation,” Tech said in the complaint.

The National Election Committee (NEC) on June 13 also issued a statement warning of legal action against Chhay following the publication of his June 7 interview with the Cambodia Daily.

It said Chhay must respect the will of people – including those who did not vote for the Candlelight Party – because that is one of the foundational principles of democracy.

In the interview, Chhay said the recent commune elections were unfair and unjust, claiming that the Candlelight Party only accepted the seats they had won instead of refusing them in protest out of respect for the will of the voters.

“These results do not reflect the will of the people who were intimidated. Their votes were bought and stolen. That’s why the seats remain [with the CPP],” the NEC’s statement quoted Chhay as saying in the interview.

The statement added that these comments attacking the integrity of the elections were unacceptable because they denigrated and undermined Cambodian democracy while also damaging the honour and dignity of the NEC, the body tasked with organising all elections as enshrined in the Constitution.

NEC stated the comments had misled the public and brought a loss of trust in the Kingdom’s elections, a crime that could incur civil fines of 10 to 20 million riel in addition to criminal penalties such as imprisonment under Article 171 of the Commune Council Election law.

“For the sake of its otherwise unblemished reputation and to maintain its honour and dignity, the NEC will take legal action against any baseless allegations,” it wrote.

NEC said that in principle, the election law allowed all political parties to file complaints over any irregularities found in any phase of the elections, from registering to campaigning to election day and vote counting.

Hence, NEC has mechanisms to receive complaints and address them on a first-come first-serve basis through the hierarchy of local electoral commissions up to the national-level NEC officials.

The statement added that Chhay should have refrained from defaming the NEC and other political parties and inciting social disorder with his words, which can lead to charges under articles 305 and 306 of the Criminal Code.

NEC stated that it had received complaints from parties, including those of Chhay’s, and was addressing them first before announcing the official commune election results.

Chhay could not be reached for comment on June 14.

However, Candlelight vice-president Thach Setha said Chhay had made the comments in order to find justice for the elections. He said NEC’s warnings infringe on his freedom of speech and demonstrate that NEC is a “strangely authoritarian” body, the existence of which obviates the need to hold any actual elections.

“Specifically, the NEC seems too authoritarian to me. We just spoke out about unfairness and even that is impossible,” he said.

Dim Sovannarom, a senior NEC member and head of its Press and Quick Reaction Unit, said on June 14 that under the law, NEC could impose fines or penalties in addition to its warnings. If any individuals continue to make false accusations, then NEC will use the power it has under the law to clear its name, he added.

“The NEC is a law-enforcement body and it answers only to the National Assembly, not to political parties,” he said.