What’s the best option, democrats in Cambodia are now asking themselves: boycott July’s general election, showing it to be a sham, or offer some form of opposition to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), even if this opposition proves to be weak?
Boycott is the appeal from the now-dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the largest opposition party. The CNRP was outlawed by the Supreme Court in November after claims it was trying to orchestrate a “color revolution.” Its president, Kem Sokha, was arrested a month earlier on treason charges and remains in jail.
Some CNRP leaders, most of whom are now in exile, have called on Cambodians to stay clear of voting booths on July 29 in order to “deprive the ruling party of its legitimacy,” said Sam Rainsy, former party president and, once again, its leading embouchure. The dissolved CNRP also contends that if independent minor parties compete, the election will be provided with a troubling veneer of legitimacy while they will gain nothing in the process.
Twenty parties have now registered to compete in July’s election. Most were described by Sam Rainsy as “firefly parties” or “puppet parties,” either because of their apparent temporality or connections to the CPP. Some have rebuffed the proposed boycott; others are clearly aligned to the CPP. Still, the CNRP contends (correctly) that just as voting is a right in any democratic nation, so too is abstaining from a vote. Just the same, some of the independent minor parties contend that they also have the right to participate in an election, however unfair that election and minimal their chances.
One problem that was evident following the 2013 general election was that Cambodian politics became a two-party system, with the CPP and CNRP controlling all seats in the National Assembly and almost all locally elected positions. The absence of a viable third party was equally significant. Between the 1998 and 2008 elections, the expiration of Funcinpec, the second-largest party at the time, was coupled by the rapid ascent of the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), which came in second place at the 2008 general election. In 2012, the SRP merged with the Human Rights Party, third-placed in 2008, to form the CNRP. But the rise of the SRP, or CNRP, since 2008 hasn’t been coupled with any major breakthrough by a third party, which now poses a major problem.
Some of the independent minor parties are now branding themselves as the middle way between the CNRP and CPP, and perhaps an alternative third party, if not a replacement of the CNRP. But all have been electorally disastrous in the past. The Grassroots Democratic Party polled appallingly at last June’s local elections when it came seventh; it took just 4,981 votes out of more than 7 million and won only five commune councilors.
The rather progressive League for Democracy Party, which has some good ideas of separation of powers, won roughly 1 percent of the vote in the 2013 general election and won 1.76 percent of votes in last year’s commune election, taking 122,882 votes. Its general secretary, Chin Thun, thinks the party has gained a stronger following since last year.
The Khmer Will Party, formed recently by Kong Monika, the son of a former senior CNRP official and brother of two CNRP parliamentarians, says it maintains the “soul” of the CNRP; its logo is almost the same as the CNRP’s, only with different colors. The Khmer Anti-Poverty Party, run by the Cambodian-American Daran Kravanh, claims his party has 1 million supporters, though he made grandiose claims in 2013 that turned out to be wrong, when the party won just 0.65 percent of the vote.
One problem is that the sheer number of independent minor parties (which are more numerous than mentioned above) will split the vote. So far, there is no indication that any will enter an informal alliance, though this would be the most electorally sensible thing to do. But the personalist nature of many of these parties, as vehicles for one political aspirant, means such an alliance is unlikely. The repressive environment they find themselves in, which could lead to an alliance being outlawed, also contributes.
There have been political surprises in recent years: whether it be Brexit, Trump, or even last month’s victory by the opposition Pakatan Harapan coalition in Malaysia’s general election. But while no serious thinking person reckons a minor party can achieve a similar political shocker in Cambodia, they might take a few seats in the National Assembly, enough to mount a decent challenge in the future.
Moreover, the decision by independent minor parties to compete in the upcoming elections, though derided by some in the CNRP, could actually improve the CNRP’s position. Without an independent alternative on the ballot, voters have only a binary choice: either vote for the CPP or one of its allied parties or abstain. But with independent parties on the ballot, if voters still abstain, it would support the CNRP’s reasoning: the CNRP isn’t just an opposition party, but the opposition party that Cambodian voters want. This would make the banned party’s case for reinstating, at some point in the future, even stronger
But the CNRP’s call for an electoral boycott is gambling on two possible outcomes, none of which is certain or, for that matter, likely. More than 2.9 million Cambodians voted for the CNRP in 2013 – compared to the CPP’s 3.2 million. And at that election, voter turnout was at its lowest in decades, at just 68.5 percent. If even a quarter of the CNRP’s voters from the last election boycott next month’s election, then turnout could dip below 60 percent or, perhaps, 50 percent. So if the boycott is successful, the CPP would achieve victory in July’s election but thanks to an embarrassingly low level of votes. CNRP leaders, no doubt, hope this would either prompt some internal divisions within the CPP or prompt foreign nations to embolden their sanctions against the Cambodian government, destabilizing it further.
If the boycott doesn’t work out, however, and the CPP is victorious with a decent voter turnout, then one must assume that an emboldened CPP government would have no incentive to reinstate the CNRP. Its leaders would face another five, perhaps, 10 years in the political wilderness, most remaining in exile. In this scenario, with the CNRP disbarred for the foreseeable future, one might hope for another oppositional party to fill the void. This, one suspects, was a motivating factor of the decision by independent minor parties to run in July’s election; take defeat this year and plan for the 2023 general election. That is, if Cambodia is to have elections in the future.