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Top Cambodian opposition party denied registration for July elections, will appeal ruling

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia’s National Election Committee refused on Monday to register the opposition Candlelight Party, the sole credible challenger to the governing Cambodian People’s Party, for July elections, saying it had failed to provide necessary documents.

The ruling leaves the party only a very slim chance of taking part in the elections by filing a successful appeal to the Constitutional Council.

Kimsour Phirith, a spokesperson for the Candlelight Party, said it will file an official complaint asking the council to judge the election commission’s ruling.

He pointed out that the party has been operating legally and participated in last year’s local elections without the issue being raised. In those polls, the Cambodian People’s Party won 74.3% of the votes and the Candlelight Party about 22.3%.

Kimsour Phirith said when the party applied to contest this year's elections, the election commission asked for its original registration papers issued by the Interior Ministry, but they had been taken in a 2017 police raid on the headquarters of its predecessor, the Cambodia National Rescue Party.

He told The Associated Press that by law, the party has five days to file a complaint after being disqualified, and he hopes the Constitutional Council will render a judgment based on the law.

Cambodian courts are widely considered to be under the influence of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government and his Cambodian People’s Party.

The governing party has held an iron grip on power for decades and controls almost every lever of government. Hun Sen, 70, an authoritarian ruler in a nominally democratic state, has held his position for 38 years. His eldest son, army chief Hun Manet, is widely expected to replace his father as prime minister after the polls.

The Candlelight Party is the unofficial successor to the Cambodia National Rescue Party, which threatened to present a serious challenge to Hun Sen’s party in the 2018 elections. But it was dissolved just months ahead of the polls by a controversial court ruling that said it had plotted the illegal overthrow of the government.

The party’s disbanding enabled the governing party to win all the seats in the National Assembly. Western nations declared the election was neither free nor fair, and imposed mild economic sanctions in response.

The election committee said in a statement that 18 of the 20 parties that applied for registration in this year's elections were approved, including the Cambodian People’s Party. The Candlelight Party and another unidentified party were both rejected for failing to provide documents supporting their applications, it said.

About 9.7 million Cambodians are registered to vote in the July 23 elections for the 125 members of the National Assembly.

If the Candlelight Party is barred. the sole competition for the governing party would be groups aligned with it, or small, obscure parties without a national presence.

Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party are certain to easily top the polls, holding all the advantages of incumbency. They are dominant in terms of nationwide organizing, personnel, finances and influence with the mass media.

The opposition is low on financial resources and subject to constant harassment in the courts initiated by the governing party. Most prominent opposition members are in self-imposed exile to avoid being jailed on various charges they say are trumped up and unfair.