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Cambodia’s 2023 election: A progressive development toward democratic maturity

Members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) duing their campaign in Phnom Penh on July 9.
Members of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) duing their campaign in Phnom Penh on July 9. Hong Menea

Cambodia’s 2023 election: A progressive development toward democratic maturity

On July 23, 2023, the Cambodian people will exercise their constitutionally guaranteed civil rights to political participation when they go to cast their votes freely, willingly and accountably in the election of members of the National Assembly (NA) for the seventh legislature after the first general elections held in 1993, back then under the supervision of the UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC). The past six national elections have laid a firm foundation for democracy in Cambodia to grow, of course not of a linear process as global evidence has shown.

However, Cambodia is a case in point in which democracy has prospered, gaining steam and momentum while political parties have in general made efforts to up their game more maturely and voters are increasingly knowledgeable about their civic and political rights. Evidently, the 2018 national election, the 2022 commune council elections and the upcoming July 23 general election have seen a remarkable progressive improvement in both the electoral process and the democratic maturity, a proud moment to celebrate the success of Cambodia’s unwavering commitment to adhering to the democratic principles and values espoused in the Constitution of 1993 that embraces a liberal democracy and political pluralism.

The conduct of regular elections of the five-year terms of the Members of the National Assembly since 1993, the commencement of the local elections since 2022 and the Senate elections, the practice of political and civic freedom, inclusiveness, absence of violence, a high level of tolerance, co-existence, justice and rule of law all define Cambodian democracy of today.

The forthcoming national election will further solidify the country’s ongoing democratisation and its continued march forward on the path of peace, stability and prosperity. Moreover, thanks to Cambodia’s maturing multi-party liberal democracy, we will witness one of the most diverse general elections in Cambodia’s modern political history, where 18 political parties from all stripes and political agendas will be competing for the 125 National Assembly seats across the 25 constituencies.

It looks promising that the July election will take place in a peaceful and inclusive environment, that is, free of political intimidation and violence and in which all registered parties can campaign, promote their political platforms or party policies, and compete with one another freely and openly as guaranteed by the Law on Election of Members of the National Assembly.

It is also interesting to see that the election campaign process by the political parties since it began on July 1 have been smooth, peaceful and orderly, signifying the growing maturity of democracy in the Cambodian society. By all accounts, this year’s election will serve as a means to further cement the ongoing democratic consolidation in Cambodia. The commune council elections held in June 2022 was conducted freely, fairly, transparently, peacefully and inclusively.

Central to this electoral process is Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC), whose primary responsibilities are to administer free and fair elections independently in Cambodia. Despite its commendable and prudent efforts to register 18 political parties, the NEC, however, has recently come under a series of politically motivated campaigns to smear its reputation and impartiality by a few political parties, whose incompetence and failures to comply with the NEC’s requirements and the Law on the Election of Members of the National Assembly dashed their hope to participate in the July elections.

If one were to dissect the accusations and political narratives that those few political parties have put forward so far, one would immediately notice that the sole responsibility for failing to comply with the NEC’s registration requirements rests solely on those incompetent political parties themselves. As required by Article 27 of the Law on the Election of Members of the National Assembly, every political party must submit to the NEC a certified copy of the certificate of registration of political parties issued by the Ministry of Interior in order to stand for elections.

Explicit among all, instead of admitting its own failure, one of the parties which had failed to register itself for its complete incompetence, and worse still irresponsibility, has not only threatened to incite social unrest at a time when Cambodia is proudly hosting the Southeast Asian (SEA)Games for the first time in its modern history, which befits a historical occasion of national pride and celebration for all Cambodian compatriots at home and abroad, but that political party has resorted to a smear campaign against the NEC.

Although such a petty political tactic is expected of a party of this calibre, it is still unfortunate to see how low, and deceitful, the political officers of that political party are willing to go in order to cunningly quench their thirst for power. Clearly, as one of the vice-presidents of that political party admitted, his party’s recent call for social unrest was a “grave mistake”, which would only expose the party’s internal division and incompetence in the public eyes of national and international audiences.

By law, those unwilling or unable to follow the electoral law will face the consequences of their actions, as all political parties in Cambodia are entitled to the same administrative and legal electoral procedures run by the NEC, an independent and impartial body. Moreover, responsibility for failing to provide adequate registration documents rests solely on the incompetent party itself and must not be used as a licence to slander others or incite social unrest.

As a matter of fact, the government has suffered more from the incompetence and ill intent of the political parties that had failed to registered in the upcoming election in their negative smear campaigns against the government and the interests of the people, for the government has relentlessly been responsible for peace, security, stability and development of the country and accountable to the people under the law of the land.

While overlooking own self-inflicted wound and the fact that 18 other parties, including the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), have successfully registered for the July election, that same individual casts a picture of Cambodia that is so detached from reality by calling the upcoming election “fake”, which happens to be a suitable description for his questionable loyalty to the nation. For a recent memory during the global outbreaks of Covid-19, he also called for the Cambodian people to not take Covid-19 vaccines the CCP-led government was administering in its nationwide campaign to contain its spread and to save lives.

To not overly credit the NEC and the Cambodian judiciary, one may simply take into account their ongoing efforts to improve the governance and protect the integrity of the electoral process and system and to deliver justice to the people, while adhering to the spirit of the national laws in place and the democratic, economic, social, cultural and political rights of the people. By all means, the relevant government agencies have acted in full swing to prevent the dangerous act of populism and attempts of color revolution by the self-exiled convict and his clans of treacherous personae and intents.

Worse still, several of those self-acclaimed liberalists and those incompetent political activists have agitated voters to boycott the elections or at least have called on voters to not exercise their lawful civic rights to cast the votes in their subsequential smear campaigns as of late. As a sequence, their evil intent backfires as they appear to have been self-ditched in a fully functional democracy guided by rule of law as the Law on the Election of Members of the National Assembly has been amended to disqualify those who intentionally fail to vote from standing in an election.

It is worth noting that the political parties that had not been able to registered themselves and the 2017 Supreme Court-dissolved party which is no longer a legally-run party, have resorted to some smear campaigns to gain international attention or to win international sympathy, rather than follow the legal and administrative procedures of the NEC and the electoral laws and related prevailing laws.

Among the countries in the Mekong region, Cambodia presents itself prominently as a model democracy of the post-conflict, war-torn developing world. On a bright side, Cambodian democracy represents the miracle of the Mekong region. Demographic dividend and the rapid adoption of digital technology made available to young voters can open another chapter for digital literacy and digital democracy in the country alongside the traditional governance system of the government, while press freedom, freedom of expression and freedom and access to information, among other rights, in Cambodia are guaranteed by the laws. Indeed, Cambodia is shining in these respects, and the people are looking forward to a brighter future.

All in all, as a multi-party liberal democracy, Cambodia has come a long way from its tragic past, and the CPP-led government has played an indispensable role in bringing national reconciliation, post-war reconstruction, economic development, stability, growth and international recognition. The upcoming July 23 election is surely a means, and not an end, in the ongoing Cambodian democratisation journey, which will continue forward solidly in a promising fashion and trajectory on the basis of the Cambodian context.

Kimlong Chheng is executive vice-president of the Asian Vision Institute (AVI).

The views expressed are his own.


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