APHR Dissolution of opposition party renders Cambodian elections illegitimate

Wednesday 22 November 2017 11:34
Parliamentarians from across Southeast Asia blasted today's decision by the Supreme Court of Cambodia to dissolve the country's main opposition party – the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) – saying that the move demolished the final pillar of Cambodian democracy and ushered in a new era of de facto one-party rule.

ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) called on international partners to cancel their engagement in next year's national elections, arguing that the CNRP's dissolution effectively robbed the vote of any legitimacy.

"The Supreme Court has hammered the final nail in the coffin for Cambodian democracy. Its decision not only leaves the country without its only viable opposition party less than a year before scheduled elections, but also completely undermines Cambodia's institutional framework and the rule of law," said APHR Chairperson Charles Santiago, a member of the Malaysian Parliament.

"One thing remains crystal clear: the CNRP was dissolved not for breaking any laws, but simply for being too popular and a threat to the ruling party's dominance. Cambodia's judiciary has once again proved that its main objective is not justice, but the furtherance of the Prime Minister's personal prerogatives," he added.

Today's ruling was issued by the Supreme Court in response to a request to dissolve the CNRP filed by the Ministry of Interior on 6 October, based on alleged violations of controversial amendments to the Law on Political Parties approved by Cambodia's Parliament in February and July. The Supreme Court also banned 118 senior CNRP members from politics for five years.

New amendments to key election-related laws rushed through the CPP-controlled National Assembly and Senate last month now allow for the redistribution of CNRP parliamentary seats to parties that failed to garner significant support in the last national election. They also allow the ruling party to take control of the more than 5,000 local offices currently held by elected CNRP members. APHR said these amendments, as well as those to the Law on Political Parties, were anti-democratic and eroded trust in Cambodia's institutions.

"All branches of government managed to have a hand in the destruction of democracy, proving that they're firmly in the pocket of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The Prime Minister fears he would lose a fair contest, so instead of doing his best to win the support of the people, he has decided to simply change the rules of the game," said Tom Villarin, an APHR member and Congressman from the Philippines.

"Dissolving the opposition means dissolving democracy. It renders elections irrelevant and further pushes Cambodia down a slippery slope," he added.

MPs said that the way in which the case had been discussed by officials and considered by the Supreme Court – including the fact that there was seemingly little deliberation before the ruling was issued and that the judge deciding the case is a longtime CPP member and close confidant of Prime Minister Hun Sen – bore all the hallmarks of heavy interference by the executive branch.

"All pretense of independence has been cast aside. As a high-level CPP member, the judge deciding the case had a clear conflict of interest, which should have been disqualifying. What's more, the verdict appears to have been decided before he even walked into the room. Repeated assertions by the Prime Minister and other officials in advance of the ruling, claiming that the CNRP's dissolution was a done deal, simply reinforced this fact," Villarin said.

The Supreme Court's decision follows months of escalating attacks on opposition voices, civil society, and independent media, including the 3 September arrest and detention of CNRP President Kem Sokha on charges of treason.

Parliamentarians said that this latest step marked a point of no return, and called on the international community to move beyond condemnatory statements and begin to take concrete actions against the Cambodian government, including withdrawing support for next year's elections.

"With the dissolution of the CNRP goes any hope for free and fair elections next year. The international community must make this clear to the Cambodian government and refuse to sanction any electoral process unless immediate steps are taken to reverse the situation," Charles Santiago said.

"Those steps must include the reinstatement of the CNRP, the unconditional release of Kem Sokha, and an end to all harassment of civil society, opposition members, and the media."