Why Cambodia’s Opposition Parties Must Unite

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Why Cambodia’s Opposition Parties Must Unite

Unity offers the only hope for defeating Prime Minister Hun Sen – but cynicism and egotism stand in the way.

Why Cambodia’s Opposition Parties Must Unite
Credit: Depositphotos

It’s the perennial question of Cambodian politics: can the country’s miserly and splenetic opposition parties unite to take on the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP)?

In February, the newly-resurrected Candlelight Party (CLP) and five other groups held alliance talks, which obviously didn’t work out. Yet four of them – the CLP, Grassroots Democratic Party, Khmer Will Party, and Cambodia Reform Party – have agreed to work together to push for changes to the election law and the structure of election organizations.

What would happen if some of Cambodia’s 17-or-so opposition parties cooperated? Let’s call this hypothetical political creature “the Alliance.” Some 17 political parties contested local elections in June. The ruling CPP took 74 percent of the popular vote. The Candlelight Party won 22.2 percent, quite an achievement given that it only restarted activity a few months earlier. Put differently, had the other 15 parties united with the Candlelight, they would have only taken just over 25 percent of the vote.

But that’s not quite accurate. It is conjecture, but the non-CPP vote would have been larger had the other opposition parties not competed individually. There would have been more tactical voting and, perhaps, more faith in the opposition cause.

Many pundits will also point to the now-banned Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) as a cautionary tale. The usual corollary is that there’s no point in any new alliance. After all, some say, if that alliance was to become successful, the CPP government would simply dissolve it just as it did the CNRP in late 2017. There’s much truth to this. It’s beyond obvious that the CNRP was culled because it performed well at the 2017 local election – keeping its vote share and denting the CPP’s monopoly on commune posts for the first time ever – and the ruling party was fearful that its opponent would go on to win the 2018 general election.

And this is already happening. Son Chhay, deputy president of the CLP, was charged with defamation this month, a case stemming from officials at the National Election Committee. A similar case against him, which will have far more severe punishment, has been brought by the ruling CPP. He will almost certainly lose.

But there are differences. First, the CNRP was a “merged” party, not an alliance. Headed by Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha, that made it more palatable to voters – but also more vulnerable. If the opposition parties were to unite, an informal alliance would be safer. Politicians and organizers could more easily change allegiance if their party was dissolved. For instance, if the CLP was dissolved, its politicians and activists could move to another party.

Cambodian voters aren’t stupid. They turned out en masse to spoil their ballots in 2018, knowing this would signal their anger at the CNRP’s dissolution. And in June they knew perfectly well that the CLP was associated with the Rainsy wing of the opposition, even if Rainsy and his allies did their best to formally distance themselves. As such, Cambodian voters would know that if the CLP members were forced to jump ship, they’d be voting for the same thing. Rainsy’s informal blessing would be key.

With an informal alliance, the parties could agree not to run candidates in another party’s stronghold, thereby giving voters a straightforward choice between a CPP candidate and a non-CPP candidate. A message could go out to the Cambodian diaspora overseas, the major donors to the opposition movement, to more evenly distribute their donations. In fact, the alliance could solicit funds together.

If they were sensible, the Alliance members would not announce a prime ministerial candidate. Voters would be left thinking that Rainsy or Sokha could take this role if (by some miracle) it won an election. More importantly, it would temper egos. The CPP campaigned as a trifecta of Hun Sen, Heng Samrin, and Chea Sim for decades and it worked.

What needs to happen for such an alliance to stand a chance? Egos must be put aside. Many of the smaller parties are personal vehicles. But most must be embarrassing, based on their past vote tally. There must be acceptance that the CNRP, as it was pre-2017, is dead. The status quo ante isn’t coming back. Kem Sokha must finally make a decision. Whatever hatred he and his family have for the Rainsy camp, they must put it aside. (Had Sokha not been so explicit in his criticism of Rainsy and the CLP ahead of June’s election, it would have likely performed better.)

The second reason why a new alliance wouldn’t be the same as the CNRP is that the latter was a short-term project. After Sam Rainsy took revenge on Norodom Ranariddh by voting with the CPP for the 50-plus-one law in 2006 – which meant Hun Sen no longer needed Funcinpec as a coalition partner – politics became a binary choice: the CPP or the opposition. The three-party system that had been in place since 1993 became a two-party structure. Merging Rainsy’s eponymous party with Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party made sense in 2012. But the new party was always on borrowed time. By merging, it made both parties more vulnerable. The CNRP was always disunited and creaking. Rainsy was never going to be able to stay in the country for more than a few years. The CNRP had to win in 2013 or 2018. Indeed, the CNRP was a gamble that it could win power in the short term.

A new alliance would have a longer, more prosaic purpose. The ultimate goal, of course, would be to win power. Aiming for defeat is never going to appeal to voters, who take a great risk in not voting for the CPP. But success for the hypothetical Alliance would be to win a similar share of the vote as the CNRP in 2013 and 2017: around 43 percent. The two-fifths mark would be acceptable next year.

But the real purpose would be the long game. Hun Sen, the prime minister since 1985, is on his way out. The succession of his eldest son, the military chief Hun Manet, has already begun. Manet will get into the National Assembly and cabinet (probably as defense minister) after next year’s general election. He’ll likely take the top job ahead of the 2028 general election.

Until then, maximum pressure, backed by popular support, needs to be placed on the ruling party as it undergoes succession. The younger generation of “princelings” who will take up the reins need to feel the flames of democracy lapping at their feet. They need to be made to realize that the public’s desire for true representative government wasn’t destroyed with the destruction of the CNRP. They need to be made to think that they should follow a new, more open path, or else they could lose power. And, importantly, they must be made to realize that the CPP is actually weaker without an opposition party in Parliament holding them to account.

No leader after Hun Sen will be able to constrain the worst excesses of Cambodia’s state, judiciary, and private sector as he has (sometimes) done. Manet trying to rule with an iron hand, like his father, will be a disaster for the country – and, indeed, for the CPP itself. By July 2023, the next general election, Cambodian politics would have had no meaningful opposition for six years. Instead, we’ve seen the messiness and insecurity of “democratic centralism.” Even if the hypothetical opposition Alliance cannot win power, the CPP needs to feel some heat and pressure from the outside.