Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) speaks during a meeting with international observers at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on July 28, 2018./AFP
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) speaks during a meeting with international observers at the Peace Palace in Phnom Penh on July 28, 2018./AFP

Foreign populist parties observe controversial Cambodia poll

ASEAN+ July 29, 2018 01:00

By Agence France-Presse
Phnom Penh

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A mishmash of populist and far-right party members from Europe and Asia are serving as election observers in Cambodia's controversial vote Sunday while many western governments are keeping their distance after the main opposition was outlawed.

With mainly obscure groups on the ballot the ruling Cambodian People's Party is all but assured of victory, extending prime minister Hun Sen's 33 years in power and solidifying the drift towards a virtual one-party state.

Hun Sen backed a crackdown on the his political opponents last year. Authorities charged one of its leaders with treason while the Supreme Court ordered the dissolution of the main opposition party.

The US and EU have declined to send assistance or monitors.

But officials have drawn on participation from observers with ties to the UK Independence Party, Italy's Fratelli d'Italia, a pro-government party in authoritarian Belarus and India's ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, among others.

"We're here for the people, to do this for the people," said Richard Wood, who stood for parliament in 2015 for UKIP.

He dismissed questions about whether their presence might legitimise a poll tainted by the lack of choice for those who supported the opposition.

"It's not my position to say who's who and what's what," he said. "I'm here for one reason only, to make sure that I observe."

The National Election Committee says there are 538 international observers, adding to tens of thousands of domestic monitors, many with links to the ruling party.

A group of 23 election monitoring groups denounced the lack of independent observers in a statement Saturday.

They cited the withdrawal of two prominent local organisations and the participation of some foreign observers in other elections that lacked transparency including in Kazakhstan, Zimbabwe, and Venezuela.

Some observers interviewed by AFP painted a positive picture of the political situation in Cambodia, with little mention of the banned opposition.

"All we see is people dancing on the streets of Cambodia," said Vijay Jolly, a member of India's ruling BJP, on Friday morning on the last day of campaigning.

"I don't think that anyone has to cast aspersions on the decisions of the Cambodian people."

Luca Romagnoli, a member of the populist right-wing Fratelli d'Italia and a former MP in the European Parliament, said he was observing in a "casual" way and not as a representative of his party.

"We were in Azerbaijan a few months ago," he said, referring to an observer mission to that country's election in April, which was also criticised as unfair.

Opposition leaders from the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party have called for a boycott of the Sunday vote but election authorities have said urging others to not show up is tantamount to a crime.

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