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Cambodia: New Election Laws

(Mar. 24, 2015) On March 19, 2015, Cambodia’s parliament unanimously approved two new election laws, the Law on the Election of Members of the National Assembly and the Law on the National Election Committee. The legislation resulted from a compromise between the governing Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). (Steven Wildberger, Cambodia Passes Controversial New Election Laws, PAPER CHASE (Mar. 19, 2015).) The CNRP had previously boycotted the legislature for almost a year, returning in July 2014, with the agreement that election reform would be undertaken. (Cambodia OKs Controversial Election Laws, AL JAZEERA AMERICA (Mar. 19, 2015).)

The texts of the new laws have been controversial, with human rights groups criticizing them as posing a threat to freedom of speech. (Wildberger, supra; Robert Carmichael, New Cambodian Election Laws Could Undermine Democracy, VOICE OF AMERICA (Mar. 19, 2015); Law on the Election of Members of the National Assembly (LEMNA) and Amended Law of Law on Elections of Members of the National Assembly (as amended through Jan. 2013) [the previous law], National Election Committee (NEC) website.)

The legislation on the election of members establishes fines and bans on non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that criticize political parties in the 21-day period set for campaigning. In addition, there are provisions that permit security forces to take part in campaigns and that punish any opposition party that boycotts Parliament or breaks other rules by taking away their parliamentary seats. The campaign period of 21 days is itself a reduction from the previous 30 days allowed. (Wildberger, supra; Cambodia OKs Controversial Election Laws, supra.)

The law on the NEC is designed to guarantee that the body will be independent. It will be formed next month and comprise nine members, four from the ruling party, four from the opposition, and one independent member acceptable to both parties. (Id.)

Criticism of the Laws

One focus of the criticism of the new laws is the potential to impose heavy fines and bans on NGOs that speak out negatively about political parties in the campaign period. Ou Virak, president of the Future Forum, an independent research group, said that the Law on the Election of Members of the National Assembly is vaguely worded, restrictive of civil society, and could be misused. He said ” … this is civil society in a brush stroke, not just foreign-funded NGOs, but all of civil society. … You can not do proper research and disclose it during the campaign period … you can not issue statements that could be deemed as insulting to any political party.” He further stressed that the limits on civil society are coming at an important time in the country’s democratic development. (Carmichael, supra.)

Brad Adams, the Asia director for Human Rights Watch, an advocacy group, said “[l]aws like these limiting freedom of expression, association, and assembly will make it likely that any future Cambodian election is undemocratic.” He placed blame on both major political parties, noting that “[i]t’s hardly surprising that the CPP proposed these provisions, but the CNRP shares the blame for agreeing to criminalize and censor speech and limit the public’s right to hold campaign rallies.” (Cambodia: Proposed Election Laws Violate Rights, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (Mar. 16, 2015).)

Human Rights Watch stated that the following aspects of the laws are problematic:

  • Criminalizing activists through vague legal provisions prohibiting “insults”
  • Shortening the campaign and procession periods;
  • Allowing security force members to act in a partisan and intimidating manner;
  • Allowing the disqualification of parties on trivial, trumped-up, or misrepresented grounds, including by punishing entire parties for offenses by individual members;
  • Preventing parties from using political boycotts to protest election fraud and other irregularities;
  • Allowing political control of NEC operations through back-door administrative means; and
  • Using the pretext of having dual citizenship to exclude a particular person from committee membership. (Id.)

In addition to the content of the laws, questions have been raised about how they were passed. The Executive Director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, Sopheap Chak, said “[t]hese laws undermine fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the constitution,” and also that there was little public debate of the legislation before its adoption. (Cambodia OKs Controversial Election Laws, supra.)