Cambodians will go to the polls on Sunday. This will be the fifth parliamentary election since the United Nations brokered a peace deal for Cambodia in 1991, a process meant to put an end to decades of bloodshed in the war-torn country.
Regrettably though, the election will be without Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy either as a candidate or a voter because he has missed the deadlines for voter and candidate registration which lapsed seven months ago. According to Article 49 of the Election Law, the registration list must be completed and approved by the National Election Committee between Oct 1 and Dec 31 each year.
After four years of self-imposed exile to escape jail terms from convictions on allegedly trumped-up charges, Sam Rainsy returned to Cambodia last week to the warm welcome of thousands of cheering supporters who turned up at the airport in Phnom Penh. His homecoming was made possible by a request from his arch-rival, Prime Minister Hun Sen, for a royal pardon from King Norodom Sihamoni.
Sam Rainsy himself is fully aware of the legal hitch which bars him from entering the poll contest. He wrote a letter to the National Election Committee, with copies to King Sihamoni and Hun Sen, asking that his name be included in the voter and candidate lists.
As can be expected, his request was rejected. In response to the opposition leader's letter, the NEC said that Sam Rainsy could not contest the poll because his name had been removed from the electoral registration list after he was sentenced in absentia. Also, the registration of candidates had long been closed and he has no right to vote either.
Strictly legally speaking, the NEC is legally bound to follow the letter of the law. But its decision to rule out Sam Rainsy, head of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, from voting in and contesting the poll may not be right because Sam Rainsy's name was excluded from both lists after he was convicted. Now that the opposition leader has received an amnesty, his name should be automatically back on the lists.
Sam Rainsy is not asking for privileged treatment. He simply wants his legitimate rights back _ the rights which were taken away from him as a result of the court's convictions. This is a complicated matter which seems to be beyond the authority of the NEC to make a decision on. The only person who can intervene to put the matter in the right perspective and to right the wrong is Hun Sen _ if he so wishes.
Since Hun Sen was kind enough to seek a royal pardon from King Sihamoni for his arch-enemy for the sake of reconciliation or whatever the real reason was, how about going a step further by removing the "legal technicality" to allow Sam Rainsy a chance at the poll.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party may win some more seats in the parliament because of Sam Rainsy's election race. But by no means will the party pose a real challenge to the ruling Cambodia People's Party's stranglehold on political power in Cambodia.
The CPP will undoubtedly win the upcoming election with a landslide which will put Hun Sen in the premiership post for the next four years on top of the 28 years he has already been in power which makes him the longest-serving government leader in Southeast Asia.
Sam Rainsy is only asking for a token gesture from Hun Sen. But what the Cambodian prime minister can expect to gain such as more credibility for the election and international recognition of the poll would far outweigh the gesture rendered.