There are not many positives, or surprises, to take from Sunday’s local election in Cambodia. The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) – which has ruled the country with an iron grip since 1979, and has tightened its political chokehold since 2017, when it banned its only real opponent – won the vast majority of commune councilor and chief posts up for grabs. The election itself was dogged by accusations of harassment and irregularities (again, conforming to expectations).
Hun Sen, the prime minister, now has a relatively easy 13 months before the general election. He will likely try again (and probably succeed) to weaken the opposition and to quicken the pace of his dynastic succession plans, which will see his eldest son, the military chief Hun Manet, assume more and more of his political duties. Now that the elections are over, a court will soon rule on the treason case involving Kem Sokha, the president of the banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). One imagines he will be convicted and then pardoned on the condition he either leaves politics for good or creates a patron opposition group.
But there’s a sliver of optimism. And that’s the Candlelight Party, which traces its lineage back to 1995 when the country’s main political defier Sam Rainsy created the Khmer Nation Party, which was then (in 1997) renamed the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and then (in 2017) the Candlelight Party. The narrative leading up to Sunday’s election was that the opposition party, which only resumed activity last October, could do quite well. No one actually believed it would win. Some analysts reckoned between 20-40 percent of the popular vote would be an achievement. I argued that something along the lines of the SRP’s tally at the 2012 local election, when it won 20.8 percent of the vote, would be decent.
In the end, according to preliminary results, it won around 22 percent of the popular vote. That 22 percent earned it just four commune chief posts. In terms of the popular vote, it wasn’t close to the CNRP’s tally at the 2017 local election, when it won 43 percent. But that was a historic achievement in 2017; for the first time since commune elections began in 2002, the CPP didn’t win almost all commune chief posts. And it was this upset that resulted in the CNRP being forcibly banned by the authorities just months afterward.
Instead, the Candlelight Party’s tally on Sunday was closer to what the SRP achieved in 2012. Why it matters is that more than a fifth of voters, despite the intimidation and the Candlelight Party only reforming last October, voted for it. And let’s be clear: the popular vote is what actually matters. The Candlelight Party could have won 50 commune chiefs but they wouldn’t have had any real power, because they will be greatly constrained by the authorities. And one cannot have it both ways: either Cambodia is a repressive state where all opposition is suffocated or it isn’t. If the former is true, then the number of commune chiefs the Candlelight Party won is irrelevant. What matters is the sheer number of voters who showed up and choose the opposition party.
What does this mean? Clearly, Cambodians don’t like opposition parties that aren’t in some way associated with Sam Rainsy. Of course, Rainsy isn’t formally associated with the Candlelight Party. If he was, the party would be automatically dissolved. But the third-placed Funcinpec and fourth-placed Khmer National United Party (KNUP) took just 1.2 percent and 0.8 percent of the vote, respectively. (Associated Press and others have incorrectly stated that Funcinpec won 900,000 votes, which would defy voter turnout figures.) Funcinpec, long associated with the royal family, ought to reconsider its purpose. Yes, it came second at the 2018 general election, but it has failed whenever a better opposition party was on the ballot: it won less than 5 percent of the popular vote at the 2008 and 2013 general elections, and less than 4 percent at the 2012 and 2017 local elections.
The CPP didn’t get 25 percent of the vote at Sunday’s ballot, roughly the same as it didn’t receive in 2018. Only this time, a majority of the opposition votes went to the Candlelight Party rather than being spread out among smaller parties. More voters spoiled their ballots at the 2018 general election than voted for second-placed Funcinpec. Incidentally, there were more invalid ballots (157,123) than the number of combined votes for Funcinpec and the KNUP (155,209) on Sunday. Cambodia’s other smaller parties perform even more woefully. The most obvious was the Grassroots Democratic Party, which is still spoken about by some as a relevant entity. On Sunday, it took just 6,757 votes, or 0.09 percent of the overall share.
The big question now is what happens to the Candlelight Party. It could so easily be dissolved if the government wants. By law, political parties can be automatically banned if they have formal links with convicts. Rainsy has numerous trumped-up convictions to his name. Linking the party to him is unfair, but no court in Cambodia would dissent if that’s what the government alleged. But maybe it won’t be banned. Does the CPP want to deal with the sort of criticism it would face, especially as Hun Sen is waylaid this year by his ASEAN chairmanship, his dynastic succession plans, and attempts at economic recovery? Banning the Candlelight Party would precipitate yet another deterioration of relations with the United States and European Union, the country’s main export partners, which Phnom Penh can ill afford.
Apparently, the CPP has done its own internal projections and reckons that at next year’s general election it could secure 104 National Assembly seats to 21 for the Candlelight Party, based on Sunday’s popular vote. However, that’s unfair to the opposition group. It only reformed in October, has had little time to raise money, and was racked by criticism from Kem Sokha’s faction of the CNRP, who accused it of breaking the opposition pact. If the Candlelight Party can stay alive until July 2023 and gain support as it is clearly now the country’s main opposition group, it would be in a much better position to challenge the CPP.
Another way of looking at it is that for the first time in decades Cambodians voted en masse for a party not led by a political icon. Ever since 1993, the largest parties have been led by prominent, almost iconic figures: Hun Sen with the CPP; Norodom Ranariddh with Funcinpec; Sam Rainsy with his parties; and Kem Sokha with his. So much so, in fact, that these parties are often seen as vehicles for their leaders. This time around, though, the Candlelight Party was led by Thach Setha, a very experienced politician but hardly of the same grandeur as Rainsy or Sokha. Shouldn’t it be welcomed that an opposition party has done well in Cambodia without the patronage of Rainsy or Sokha? After all, the former is 73 and unlikely to be allowed to return to the country; the latter is 68 and his best hope of escaping jail is to cut some sort of deal with Hun Sen.