NEW YORK (July 27, 2018) — In the next few days, citizens of Cambodia and Zimbabwe — two authoritarian regimes — will head to the polls to vote in general elections. In Zimbabwe, authoritarian leaders and the military have allowed opposition candidates to run, but have simultaneously worked to intimidate voters with threats of violence and prevented opposition leaders from running on an equal playing field. In Cambodia, legitimate competition between political parties simply does not exist. Kem Sokha, the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the only opposition party that stood a chance against authoritarian prime minister Hun Sen, is currently in prison on the trumped-up charge of treason. His party was dissolved by parliament and its members either exiled or imprisoned. The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) warns that neither election can be considered “free and fair” regardless of what takes place on the days of the elections, and calls on election monitors to hold Cambodian and Zimbabwean leaders accountable for undermining the democratic process.
“In the coming days, both Zimbabwe and Cambodia will stage elections to give the appearance of democracy and win some legitimacy on the international stage. Let’s be clear: neither of these elections are free and fair, and neither of these countries is a democracy,” said HRF Chairman Garry Kasparov. “It is our responsibility to call out these leaders and ensure that they are held accountable for attacking the opposition, censoring the media, and manipulating voters. I hope the election monitors in these countries will take that responsibility seriously.”
Zimbabwe’s July 30 vote marks the first election since long-time despot Robert Mugabe stepped down from power after a military coup in November 2017. Initially, Zimbabweans and the international community celebrated his removal as a sign that the country would begin a transition to democracy; however, actions taken by the new president — Mugabe’s former Vice President and “enforcer” Emmerson Mnangagwa — and his supporters in the military tarnished hopes long before the election date. In 2008, Mnangagwa and his now-Vice President Constantino Chiwenga helped Mugabe to carry out a horrific campaign of violence against opposition leaders and voters that left more than 200 dead, 5,000 beaten or tortured, and 36,000 displaced, according to The Washington Post. Although this campaign period has not been as bloody, the military is allegedly falling back into bad habits, forcing voters to attend ZANU-PF rallies and threatening violence against opposition supporters. Most recently, Mnangagwa threatened to arrest opposition candidate Nelson Chamisa if he disrupts the ruling party’s plans. Mnangagwa was himself targeted in an attack last month that was allegedly organized by rivals in his own party.
On Wednesday, July 25, Chamisa criticized the Zimbabwean Electoral Commission (ZEC) at a press conference for “join[ing] another team, particularly Mnangagwa’s team,” evinced by its “consistent negation of international [electoral] standards” and lack of transparency. Others argue that ZEC’s decisions actively undermine the secrecy of the ballot, and that it has failed to ensure that all candidates and parties have equal access to the media. Militants have apparently threatened voters with violence, saying the new biometric registration process allows them to identify opposition supporters, and reports from earlier this month allege that voter rolls include hundreds of thousands of “ghost voters” whose “votes” could be used to sway the election (a claim the commission later denied). Despite mounting evidence of electoral violations, some election monitors still expect the elections to be “free and fair,” according to The Mail & Guardian. The European Union’s mission, for example, continues to deem the vote a “historic opportunity [...] to ensure credible, transparent, and inclusive polls.”
Rather than boycotting the vote, Chamisa called on Zimbabweans to turn out for the vote in overwhelming numbers to defeat “Mr. Mnangagwa and ZEC both [...] to make sure they will not steal this election.” In conversation with HRF, leader of the #ThisFlag movement and candidate for Harare’s local council Evan Mawarire explained, “We are going into a rigged election and the evidence of that is blatantly obvious. As Zimbabweans we will not stand for rigging. We marched Mugabe out of office because of this and we will exercise all our constitutional rights to challenge this gross injustice on the will of the people.”
Cambodia’s July 29 election will take place in an environment of extreme repression. Hun Sen, the current prime minister of Cambodia and president of the Cambodian People’s Party, has ruled the country for 33 years, making him Asia’s longest ruling dictator. Last year, to ensure he would be unopposed in this year’s election, Hun Sen started a widespread purge against the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), the leading opposition party that secured almost half of the votes in the 2013 election and posed a serious threat to his rule. In September 2017, CNRP leader Kem Sokha was arrested and accused of overthrowing the prime minister. Shortly after, in November, the Supreme Court of Cambodia dissolved CNRP altogether and banned the members of the opposition from participating in politics for five years. Members of the party either fled the country or were imprisoned.
In addition to eliminating electoral competition, Hun Sen also targeted independent media. Cambodia Daily, an independent newspaper, was falsely slammed with millions of “back taxes” and forced to close. Later, one of the last independent media organizations, The Phnom Penh Post, was sold to a Malaysian crony of Hun Sen.
The Cambodian government boasted that 220 observers from 52 countries would be on site to monitor Sunday’s elections, but some monitors in attendance lack independence. For instance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (an organization based in China and Uzbekistan) and the International Conference of Asian Political Parties are both known to certify elections that are not free and fair.
“Because of Hun Sen, my friends, colleagues, and I were forced to flee the country we love, and the ones left behind were thrown in prison. All we wanted was the chance to represent the people of Cambodia by participating in our own government,” said Mu Sochua, vice president of CNRP. “As long as countries like Japan continue to hold Cambodia’s election as legitimate, Hun Sen will be able to silence voices like ours and advance his authoritarian agenda. The CNRP is calling on its supporters and the international community to boycott this illegitimate election and hold Hun Sen accountable for his human rights abuses.”
The Human Rights Foundation (HRF) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization that promotes and protects human rights globally, with a focus on closed societies.
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