PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Three of the groups approved to monitor Cambodia’s election have close ties to Prime Minister Hun Sen, one headed by his son and the other two led by a man who was appointed by the Southeast Asian country’s strongman ruler as a “goodwill ambassador”.
Cambodia heads to the polls on July 29 for an election criticized by the United Nations and Western countries as fundamentally flawed after the dissolution of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and imprisonment of its leader, Kem Sokha, last year.
The United States and the European Union responded to the crackdown by withdrawing financial support and monitors from the election, a step followed by independent local and international NGOs that had overseen previous elections.
The National Election Committee (NEC) says it has approved 69 individual foreign observers, but doesn’t provide the number of institutions.
It has registered 107 domestic groups, which will be dominated by the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia (UYFC), an organization led by Hun Many, the prime minister’s son and a lawmaker for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
A total of 36,000 members of the UYFC had been registered, said Huy Vannak, a member of the youth organization’s central committee and undersecretary of state for the Interior Ministry. The group will contribute almost half of the 77,534 monitors.
Dim Sovannarom, a spokesman for the NEC, confirmed that “tens of thousands” of the UYFC’s members had been ratified as election observers. UYFC provided election monitors in past polls but not on this scale.
Vannak said UYFC was committed to democracy and was non-partisan.
“We continue to leverage our ideals and provide our people throughout the country with better services. That is why people continue to support the Cambodian People’s Party,” he said.
Hun Many did not respond to a request for interview.
Lee Morgenbesser, a lecturer at Australia’s Griffith University and author of a book on elections under authoritarianism in Southeast Asia, said the UYFC is not independent and firmly backs the government.
He said the upcoming Cambodian election was imperfect, but the number of voters could indicate the level of support for the government.
“Having dissolved the opposition, Hun Sen is now dependent on the turnout rate to establish some level of electoral credibility,” Morgenbesser said.
The opposition CNRP, which came a close second to the ruling party in elections held in 2013 and 2017, is calling for a boycott of the poll and says the ruling party is pressuring people to vote.
Government members and officials have warned that calls to spurn voting are illegal despite the country’s voluntary voting system, although no one has been arrested.
“The election is a complete sham lacking any credibility. It’s a one-horse race,” said Kem Monovithya, daughter of the detained CNRP leader.
With 20 parties competing in the election, the government says its democracy is healthy. However, critics say the parties are too small to mount a serious challenge to the ruling party’s well-funded election machine.
Hun Sen has been the country’s prime minister for 33 years.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said allegations the election and its monitors were biased were groundless.
Among the foreign monitors registered by the election committee are members of the European Council on International Relations and the Bucharest-based European Council of Tourism and Trade, Dim said.
The groups are headed by Anton Caragea, who - from his websites - appears to be based in Romania. He also runs what he says is an impartial outfit called World Election Monitoring Organisation.
In 2016, Caragea was appointed a “goodwill ambassador for tourism” by Cambodia. He reciprocated in 2017 by anointing Hun Sen as a “goodwill ambassador for tourism and sustainable development goals” in a ceremony attended by the Cambodian leader.
Caragea hails Hun Sen on his group’s websites as a “paragon of development” who had guided Cambodia with “savvy leadership”.
In a preliminary assessment released on Tuesday, his monitoring team said Cambodia had a “perfect electoral process” and complimented Hun Sen for strengthening democracy.
Caragea did not respond to an emailed request for comment.
His websites show that he has praised other strongmen in the past, including Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro and Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe.
According to one of his websites, Caragea was an election monitor in Kazakhstan in 2015, when its president won with 97.7 percent of the vote. While the Organisation for Cooperation and Security in Europe said voters had no genuine choice, Caragea said the outcome proved democracy was a “living reality” in the country.
Reporting by Tom Allard and Prak Chan Thul; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan