This weekend, Cambodians will head to the polls to vote in commune elections, with an opportunity to end five years of de facto one-party rule, at the grassroots level at least. The process won’t be free, fair, or even legitimate, but it could help introduce some democratic space into a society that has become extremely repressive since a political crackdown that began in 2017.
That year, the Supreme Court ruled to dissolve the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). The party’s president, Kem Sokha, was jailed for treason while its other co-founder Sam Rainsy remained abroad to avoid a similar fate.
The dissolution left the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in control of 11,510 out of 11,572 commune positions, and allowed it to take every single seat in the National Assembly during the 2018 national elections. It was a jarring embrace of one-party rule in a country that had generally pursued the form, if not the substance, of multiparty democracy.
The CNRP was born from an uneasy merger between the two opposition heavyweights, who have since parted ways as Rainsy allies restarted the dormant Candlelight Party to contest this month’s election, while Sokha’s wing of the party maintains its distance.
Kem Sokha “has made it clear publicly that he has nothing to do with the Candlelight Party. His former partner has chosen to go a different direction when they restarted the Candlelight Party, which he does not support,” said Sokha’s daughter, Kem Monovithya, who also served as the CNRP’s deputy director of public affairs. She called Candlelight’s decision to contest the commune elections “a step backwards.”
But the Candlelight Party quickly received endorsements from some major players in the Cambodian opposition movement, including former CNRP rising star Sin Rozeth, activist monk But Buntenh, and prominent union leader Rong Chhun.
In hindsight, Cambodia’s democracy was always an illusion. The core premise was lacking – that another political party could take power by winning an election.
But the so-called trappings of democracy did have tangible benefits for the Cambodian people. Before the 2017 crackdown there was a more vibrant free press, a bolder civil society, and a greater degree of free speech.
Of course, activists, journalists and politicians still faced harassment and occasional arrests, but the atmosphere of fear was less all-encompassing than it is today. The return of a credible opposition party could help reopen some of the spaces that closed post-2017.
The CNRP also functioned as a mechanism for reform by forcing the CPP to adopt opposition policies to appease voters. As the now-shuttered Cambodia Daily wrote in 2016, after almost losing the national election in 2013, the CPP co-opted a host of CNRP policies, like raising the minimum wage for civil servants and garment workers, increasing healthcare coverage, and reducing fuel and electricity prices.
Genuine political reform remained out of reach and will likely continue to be unattainable even if the Candlelight Party becomes a significant force in commune councils and, potentially after next year’s national election, in parliament. But Sokha’s camp has also not articulated a clear alternative strategy for change.
The June 5 election will inevitably be severely flawed.
“In terms of commune elections, 2022 is the most restrictive pre-election period Cambodia has experienced in at least a decade,” said Naly Pilorge, deputy director of human rights group LICADHO.
The CPP has full control of the country’s National Election Committee and the overwhelming majority of poll watchers are from pro-government organizations. Candlelight Party members are facing a campaign of intimidation and harassment, including violent attacks. Eleven Candlelight candidates were also disqualified over “baseless and politically-motivated complaints,” according to party treasurer Seng Mardi.
“Facing a torrent of threats, physical harms, administrative and judicial harassments, why do we participate in this lopsided competition? The answer: What choice do we have? We are liberal democrats believing in democracy as the only peaceful avenue of change,” Mardi said.
It’s unclear how the Candlelight Party will perform; it’s hard to know what people think when they aren’t allowed to speak. But after 2017, it is clear that the CPP will never allow an opposition party to win an election.
The Candlelight Party seems aware of this, and isn’t aiming too high. Mardi told Nikkei Asia that they hope to recover around 80 percent of the 489 commune seats the CNRP lost when it was dissolved.
But he told The Diplomat that this is “more than just a David-Goliath story,” pointing out that in just four months, Candlelight has managed to field 23,000 candidates in 98 percent of the country’s communes.
If the Candlelight Party were to pull off a surprise and win a majority of commune seats, the CPP could be expected to rig the results or dissolve the party. The government has already tentatively accused Candlelight of violating the Law on Political Parties, the same statute that was used to dissolve the CNRP. This could be a failsafe strategy if Candlelight overperforms.
“The remaining political opposition is attempting to find space amidst widespread intimidation and repression, under the always-looming threat of dissolution or other ways to prevent a competitive election,” said Pilorge.
The International Factor
But it probably is in Prime Minister Hun Sen’s best interests to have an opposition party on the scene.
“Propping up a sham election fully controlled by the ruling party surely is not the way to increase any political space but lending legitimacy to the regime,” argued Monovithya.
She has a point. Hun Sen came under intense scrutiny and pressure from the international community after the CNRP was dissolved and the CPP contested the 2018 national elections virtually unopposed. Resurrecting the veneer of democracy could help relieve that pressure.
The political crackdown led to major tensions with the Europe and the United States, but the West is now more concerned with countering China’s influence in Southeast Asia than bringing democracy to Cambodia.
We’ve already seen signs that the chill is thawing. U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visited Cambodia last year, meeting with Hun Sen. And last month, Hun Sen finally got his first White House visit after nearly 40 years in power, albeit as part of the U.S.-ASEAN Special Summit. A couple of controlled elections could be all that’s needed to fully normalize relations.
But the government’s acceptance of the Candlelight Party is not a foregone conclusion.
“It remains to be seen if any space they struggle to pry open can remain as we approach national elections in 2023,” warned Pilorge.
Hun Sen may have become accustomed to lording it over Cambodia entirely unopposed and may be reluctant to return to a semi-competitive political system. His position is also propped up by a vast patronage network, and there’s no doubt that many elites have benefited economically and politically from one-party rule. Shaking up that system could provoke resentment, at a time when Hun Sen is trying to keep various factions satisfied in anticipation of transferring power to his eldest son.
But it’s hard to see what other options Cambodia’s opposition has.
“In this scorched and barren democratic field, [Candlelight Party] is the seed. Voters will plant this seed and this seed will grow and produce fruits if we all tend it and care for it. What is the alternative?” Mardi asked.
Cambodia is not Myanmar. There’s little appetite for mass protests, no inclination for armed revolution, and Hun Sen retains a level of genuine support that Myanmar’s generals could only dream of. Within the constraints of the existing political realities, an opposition party that is genuine in its dissent, but unable to take power, may be the best Cambodia can attain – at least for now.