PHNOM PENH: Having been dissolved and its 118 senior officials banned from politics for five years by Cambodia’s Supreme Court last November, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) will not be a participant in the nation’s upcoming election.
That does not mean the party will not be an active player.
On May 14, the National Election Commission (NEC) formally ended the registration for the July election with 20 parties submitting their candidates. The CNRP was not among them.
Since the dissolution, former CNRP officials who are now living in exile have started a different kind of campaign - looking for international support in order to put pressure on the Cambodian government to reinstate them for the general election.
That mission has failed.
Recently, Sam Rainsy, the former president of CNRP, appealed to people not to vote in what he called “a sham election that offers people no real choice and can only lead to the misrepresentation of their will, with the only objective for the government being to legitimise a dictatorship”.
The national opposition - widely seen as a strong chance to win power before being dismantled - is now taking their fight with Prime Minister Hun Sen outside the ring.
“Voting is the right of any citizen, but not voting is also their right,” Rainsy wrote on his Facebook page on May 18.
“In such circumstances, an election boycott is an act of passive resistance in a peaceful fight for democracy.
“An election that is not genuine is a fake election. Nobody should be forced to participate in a fake election. On the contrary, decent people should boycott it,” he added.
In a similar message, a CNRP statement released on May 14, condemning Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government and the NEC for seizing the voters' rights to political choice by banning the CNRP from the upcoming election.
“The decision clearly shows that the Jul 29 election will be a sham election and will not reflect the will of Cambodian people and signals the death for democracy in Cambodia,” the statement read.
“Abstention means supporting the CNRP in your heart and a desire for the CNRP to lead the country towards positive change.”
However, this sideline electioneering has not been overlooked by the NEC - in the past criticised for toeing the government line. It says the CNRP is violating the law by trying to prevent people from going to vote.
NEC have also subsequently reacted to the call for an election boycott by saying that organising was going smoothly, according to the law and in a legitimate way as stated in the new article 150 of Cambodia’s constitution.
Legally listed parties have the right to register and submit candidates for the election, the NEC stated last month.
But there is no article stating that the election will be legitimised only if the opposition party participated.
The NEC has since appealed for people to exercise their voting rights.
“It is the only chance in every five years to choose our leaders and for the benefit of our own future,” the NEC said.
Recently, Dim Sovannarom, spokesman for the NEC, told local media that it had not filed any formal complaint against the CNRP but had asked the Interior Ministry to take legal action against those who appealed for people not to vote.
TO VOTE OR NOT TO VOTE
So what will staunch CNRP supporters do come July 29?
In the previous general election in 2013, the CNRP received more than three million votes - accounting for nearly half of the country’s registered voters - and it enjoyed similar success in last year’s commune ballot, making it the only legitimate challenger to the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP).
A 51-year-old man, from Svay Rieng province, Mao, said he had always gone to vote in previous elections but admitted he is not ready this time.
“Actually, people need to fulfil their duty and go to vote but I do not have any party to vote for since the main opposition was dissolved,” Mao said.
Mao wants to see more national development and leadership changes like in the United States and Japan.
However, he has little hope for change in Cambodia.
“They won’t break their rice pot,” said Mao. “No matter what you do, the CPP will win this election.”
Asked about the many other parties registered to participate in this election - many of them very small and not widely known - he said that they were not real competitors but serving their own self-interest.
“They are just a branches coming from the same tree. No CNRP, no competition,” he said.
Pov Khorn, 65, also from Svay Rieng province, said he felt reluctant to vote this year but would out of fear of being accused of not supporting the ruling party.
“I have to go. If I don’t go, I am afraid of being accused of hating the CPP,” he said.
However, CPP spokesman Sok Eysan has moved to reassure people that voting is not compulsory.
“They don’t need to worry,” he said. “The law does not force them to go and even they don’t go, there is no punishment.
“As the voters and the owner of the nation, they should go in order to express their will in choosing leaders of the nation.”
He believes voter turnout will not decrease despite the opposition’s absence.