At first sight, the upcoming commune and sangkat elections in Cambodia may resemble a democratic exercise, as 17 parties will be allowed to run, but one has only to scratch the surface to realize that the polls are prepared in a climate of intimidation against the opposition. The elections will yet again be an instrument for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to attempt to legitimize its increasingly dictatorial rule and maintain its hold on power in what has become de facto a one-party state.
This does not bode well for democracy in Cambodia as the country prepares for a legislative election next year. And there are many reasons why the international community should not be fooled by the electoral charade that will take place on June 5.
The main challenger to the CPP’s hegemony is the Candlelight Party, which has been allowed to present candidates for most of Cambodia’s 1,652 communes. But the National Election Committee (NEC), has removed more than 100 candidates from the party, leaving the CPP with no major competitors in some of the most important constituencies, including the capital, Phnom Penh.
According to the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC), an independent election watchdog, the candidate disqualifications were made after an unfair process in which the NEC failed to present evidence or witnesses. The NEC is hardly an independent body, as it is mainly made up of loyalists to the CPP and the prime minister, Hun Sen, who has been in power since 1985. There are no opposition members on the body, even if by law they should have equal representation.
Moreover, the Candlelight Party has suffered harassment throughout the campaign, often reportedly at the hands of local officials. Most recently, the party’s campaign signs were vandalized and removed in the province of Siem Reap; in March, two candidates were arrested on allegations of forging documents, in a case which the party maintains was an example of the political harassment to which it is constantly subjected. In Kompong Cham, several candidates risk being disqualified after being accused by the CPP of buying votes.
In these circumstances, free competition and safe campaigning, necessary in any democratic process, are utterly absent. As the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) argued in a recent report, “undemocratic elements in the current legal framework continue to allow room for abuse, leading to a repressed civic space and a hindrance to a free and fair election environment.”
All this is part of a long and systematic pattern. Hun Sen and the CPP have controlled Cambodia for over three decades. To do so, they have dealt with any dissent with harassment, violence and political persecution. Draconian measures have been imposed to prevent the opposition from exercising its freedom of expression, association, and assembly. The most common method is judicial persecution; political disagreements with the ruling party are routinely taken to courts utterly lacking in any independence.
The culmination of this harassment came in November 2017 with the arbitrary dissolution of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the most serious challenger to Hun Sen at the time. The elimination of the party, which had won 43.8 percent of the popular vote in commune elections that year, paved the way for the CPP to win all 125 seats in parliament at national elections the following year.
Ever since, and to give the political coup de grâce to the opposition, dozens of members of the CNRP have faced judicial harassment, including the party’s president, Kem Sokha, who remains banned from political activities and is on trial for treason. In March of this year, 19 opposition politicians and activists were sentenced to between five and 10 years in prison. Among them there are seven leaders in exile who were tried in absentia, including the former leader of the CNRP, Sam Rainsy, and its deputy, Mu Sochua.
The Candlelight Party, the current iteration of the opposition party founded by Sam Rainsy in 1995, may be allowed to take part in the electoral process, but only on a blatantly uneven playing field designed to assure victory for the CPP.
This unevenness is compounded by the muzzling of the independent media, and a tight control and harassment of civil society. And, to further limit the civic space in the country, in 2021 the government passed the Sub-Decree on the Establishment of the National Internet Gateway, through which all internet traffic would be routed through a single “gateway,” enabling the government to monitor any online activity. The gateway plan has been put on hold, but it has raised serious concerns among human rights organizations.
If it stays in its current path, Cambodia will continue to be a one-party state for the foreseeable future. And that has repercussions for the whole of Southeast Asia, which has recently taken a worrying authoritarian turn, most dramatically exemplified in the coup in Myanmar last year. As the current chair of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) this year, the Hun Sen regime broke from the group’s consensus and lent legitimacy to the Myanmar junta by meeting its leader, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, thus further undermining democracy in the region.
And authoritarianism is not only a dire threat to human rights and democracy, it is also detrimental to economic growth, as it fosters instability and undermines social cohesion. This is a lesson that democratic countries should take to heart when dealing with Cambodia and other authoritarian regimes.
There remain sections in Cambodian civil society that are committed to the promotion of human rights and democracy, despite the overwhelming odds stacked against them, and the international community should continue supporting them.
Pressure should be applied to the regime while keeping in mind the needs and vulnerabilities of an already impoverished population. For instance, the European Parliament justifiably condemned the arbitrary dissolution of CNRP earlier this month while also calling on the government to put an end to the persecution of political opposition, journalists, and human rights defenders.
Cambodia needs democracy for its own sake, but also for an ASEAN that faces continued economic, public health, human rights, and environmental challenges. It is incumbent on its democratically-minded neighbors and partners to send a clear message that these faux elections will not result in legitimacy for the CPP – especially while fundamental freedoms and human rights are trampled over on a daily basis.