The Ministry of Interior yesterday instructed provincial authorities to “make it easy” for parties preparing for the upcoming national elections, including facilitating the building of party banners and the holding of meetings – after a year in which the government systematically removed CNRP banners and often prevented gatherings before finally dissolving the party.
The letter asks officials to allow parties to open headquarters or offices, to install party signage and to not stand in the way of meetings held in the offices or the homes of supporters.
“[Make] it easy for all political parties . . . to participate in the 6th Mandate parliamentary elections taking place on 29 July 2018, [for] it to be free, fair and just and according to the democratic and multi-party principles,” the statement reads.
Despite dissolving the only legitimate competitor to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, the government has defended the upcoming elections as a legitimate contest within a multi-party democracy. Much of the international community sees it otherwise, however, and both the European Union and United States have pulled their support for the National Election Committee. Before it was dissolved, the CNRP faced what it contends was constant harassment.
In one case following the arrest of party leader Kem Sokha on “treason” charges, party officials were prevented from meeting in various communes in Kampong Chhnang because they would “discuss politics”. In August, former party leader Sam Rainsy’s image had to be removed from all CNRP signs after a legal amendment forbade a party’s association with a convicted criminal.
Prior to the 2013 elections, the CNRP also complained of billboards being defaced or torn down in Prey Veng and Svay Rieng provinces. In 2014, Rainsy was blocked by villagers and soldiers from entering Oddar Meanchey for a public forum.
Former CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua said it was always a fight with local ruling party officials to erect billboards, with some even being pulled down by the authorities. She added that party meetings were constantly monitored by the police.
“We were always photographed at each meeting,” she said. “Many times we wanted to confront the police.”
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the letter was simply intended to clarify rules surrounding political activity, pointing out that the new Rainsy-led Cambodia National Rescue Movement – which is not a party – is still forbidden.
“In the past we did not have such instructions, but now we have it in case they [officials] are wrong and arrest [people]. So, we are reminding them officially about the safety [rules] for the elections,” he said.
Asked if the changes had to do with concerns over the election’s legitimacy, Sopheak skirted the question, pointing to peaceful ballots in the recent commune elections and in the 2013 national elections, while highlighting election-related deaths during the 1993 United Nations-administered ballot.
Grassroots Democracy Party spokesman Sam Inn said the directive may be a result of letters they submitted to the Interior Ministry and two provincial halls complaining of billboards being removed in Battambang and Phnom Penh.
Political commentator Meas Nee said the notification was a sign of anxiety over the upcoming elections.
“When there is a strong opponent that’s made weak the [ruling] political party starts to use other strategies to attract the credibility and make sure that the elections are democratic,” he said.