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How the Candlelight Party Can Restore Political Pluralism to Cambodia

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How the Candlelight Party Can Restore Political Pluralism to Cambodia

Since the banning of the Cambodia National Rescue Party in 2017, an old party has kept its flame burning.

How the Candlelight Party Can Restore Political Pluralism to Cambodia
Credit: Facebook/ភ្លើងទៀន គ-ភ-ទ.កធ / Candlelight Party.Kh

After the arbitrary dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the growing strength of the Candlelight Party shows that the desire for democratic change can’t be wiped out at the stroke of a pen.

Cambodia went back in time to the status of a single party state in 2017 with the arbitrary dissolution of the CNRP, which was the only parliamentary opposition party. Prime Minister Hun Sen, in power since 1985, judged that the party was too serious a threat to be allowed to compete in the national elections of 2018. By getting rid of the CNRP, which, despite government manipulation, had officially secured close to half the votes in preceding elections, Hun Sen ensured that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) won 100 percent of the seats in the National Assembly.

With an eye on the future and his own survival, Hun Sen took the measures necessary to block any way back for the CNRP. All the leaders of the party have been accused of “sedition” or “treason” and are banned from political activity. In an atmosphere of continuing repression, no opposition seems possible any longer. Apart from the CPP, there are just some minuscule parties, most of which seem to have been created simply to present a façade of “pluralist democracy” designed for international consumption.

‘Sedition’ and ‘Treason’

Yet Cambodia also has a relatively old party, the Candlelight Party, which has been sleeping but is now beginning to stir. This is the old Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) which I founded in 1998 and which was mothballed when Kem Sokha and I founded the CNRP in 2012. A new generation of leaders is now at the head of the Candlelight Party.

Still mothballed, the SRP changed its name to the Candlelight Party in 2017. This was because made-to-measure laws had been brought in to ban any political party from making reference to anyone convicted on political charges. This applied to me as I had a long string of political convictions since 2015.

Any party which did not respect this new legislation would be dissolved by the authorities. I stood down as leader of the CNRP in February 2017 in an attempt to avoid its dissolution, and was replaced by Kem Sokha. Hun Sen then contrived another pretext to target Kem Sokha by accusing him of “sedition and treason.” Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017 and the CNRP was dissolved the same year.

Commune Elections in June

Preparations for the communal elections of June 5 this year see an electorate still stunned from the mass disenfranchisement which left 100 percent of the National Assembly seats in the hands of the ruling party. In an atmosphere of repression characterized by arrests and violent attacks on opposition supporters in the streets, and at a moment when Kem Sokha’s trial is being dragged out for as long as possible, the sudden resurgence of the Candlelight Party is having a surprise impact.

At this stage of electoral preparations, the force of a party can be measured by the numbers of candidates which it can field. The communal elections in June will see the election of a mayor and a commune council of between 10 and 22 members, including the substitute members, for 1,652 communes in Cambodia.

To be able to put up a list of candidates in a given commune, a party must have a certain basis of popular support there. Among the 17 competing parties, only the CPP has been able to put up a list of candidates for each of the 1,652 communes. This is easy in a country where the state and the ruling party are hard to distinguish.

What is much more surprising is that provisional information shows that the  Candlelight Party has been able to put forward a complete list of candidates in between 98 percent and 99 percent of communes. This includes the most remote and isolated communes, and those where fear and intimidation are most entrenched. The other parties lag far behind: less than 40 percent for the third and fourth placed parties, which are allied with the CPP, and less than 20 percent for the fifth placed party and less than 2 percent for the seven smallest parties.

So the electoral contest will essentially take place between two protagonists, the CPP and Candlelight. The other parties are too small to be visible across most of Cambodia. The fact that in more than 1,000 communes out of 1,652, voters will have a choice between only two parties shows a return to the bi-polar competition which existed before the dissolution of the CNRP.

Hidden Strengths

So how is it that the Candlelight Party can, in the space of just a few months, practically replace the CNRP as the only credible opposition party ? How has the party been able to acquire a significant basis of support, which normally takes years, so quickly? What are the hidden strengths of this party?

The party’s assets are based firstly on its history and loyalty to the principles which it has held since its creation. It has the same logo (the candle) and the same motto (Integrity, Truth, Justice) as its precursor, the SRP. Therefore the party is seen as the historic continuation of the SRP which I founded 24 years ago as Cambodia’s first party of parliamentary opposition. The SRP, which participated in multiple legislative and communal elections, saw its popularity continually increase until the creation of the CNRP. This party, a symbol of the unity of Cambodia’s democratic forces, gave the opposition an even greater momentum from 2013 until its dissolution in 2017. That makes it easier to see how popular support for the CNRP is being transferred to the Candlelight Party.

This transfer of support shows that no dictator can simply cancel the desire of a whole people for democratic change at the stroke of a pen. Voters recognize Candlelight as a real party of opposition which follows on from the CNRP when they see that up to 90 percent of the candidates which the party is now putting forward were reportedly either candidates for the CNRP in the last communal elections of June 2017, or were elected and then saw their seats confiscated by the CPP. These seats, won on the basis of universal suffrage, were then simply doled out to ruling party members (486 positions of mayor and 5,007 communal counselors).

Threat of Dissolution

Having virtually substituted itself for the CNRP as the only real credible party of opposition which is considered as “legal” under the repressive laws currently in place, won’t the Candlelight Party suffer the same fate as the CNRP, that is dissolution, once it starts to seriously threaten the absolute power of Hun Sen? Won’t he be able to find another pretext, just as fallacious as the last, to get rid of a competitor that is too dangerous?

After having me sentenced to heavy prison sentences for purely political reasons and labelled me as a “convict”, Hun Sen had amendments made to the law on political parties designed to remove me from the political scene. So it is forbidden for any political party, under threat of dissolution, to be in contact with a “convict”, to mention his name, or to make reference to any writings, speech, recommendation, advice from this “convict”, or to use photos or drawings of them.

Threats were made already on March 1 in the government-aligned Khmer Times, “Trouble stirs: Rainsy’s support for CLP may violate Law on Political Parties.” In Phnom Penh, my slightest word or gesture is watched for any sign of support for the Candlelight Party so as to find a pretext to dissolve it. According to Khmer Times: “Former opposition leader Sam Rainsy has publicly thrown his support behind the Candlelight Party he had founded and mobilized support for it.”

To back up this accusation Khmer Times uses a photo showing me with a group of supporters behind … a candle. In 1998, I chose the candle as the logo of the SRP because it symbolizes light and hope. The Candlelight Party has kept the same logo which has a universal signification. But under the Hun Sen regime, lighting a candle and standing behind it is a suspect gesture.

The Candlelight Party does not have the “legal” right to support me. The reverse is not the case. There is nothing to stop me offering moral support without any active involvement with the party.

Restoring the Democratic Process

As I showed in The Diplomat  on March 10, Hun Sen carried out a constitutional coup to derail the democratic process by imposing the dissolution of the CNRP.

The Cambodian people continue to reject this unacceptable and anti-constitutional action.

While waiting for the rehabilitation of the CNRP, defenders of democracy and friends of  Cambodia must push Hun Sen to stop resting on his laurels and compete a little. He must be shown that it is impossible to preemptively eliminate a competing political party when it looks capable of victory, as was the case with the CNRP and may in future be the case with the Candlelight Party.

Ensuring the survival of a real opposition party is an essential condition of restoring the democratic process. There can be no democracy without forces capable of offering a real alternative.