What’s a Decent Outcome For Cambodia’s Opposition At the Upcoming Election?

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What’s a Decent Outcome For Cambodia’s Opposition At the Upcoming Election?

For a party living under the constant fear of crackdown or dissolution, it might be wise to downplay its chances at the July poll.

What’s a Decent Outcome For Cambodia’s Opposition At the Upcoming Election?

Activists from Cambodia’s opposition Candlelight Party hold a general meeting in Tbong Khmum province, Cambodia, on January 26, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/គណបក្សភ្លើងទៀន Candlelight Party

It’s been a rough few months for the Candlelight Party, now Cambodia’s second-largest party. Several of its senior leaders have been hit by trumped-up defamation lawsuits from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the National Election Commission. Thach Setha, its vice president, was detained on January 16 for apparently writing bad checks. On January 31, Kong Korm, a senior adviser, stepped down after the CPP filed a lawsuit against him for $500,000 and threatened to confiscate his home. A public apology saw the CPP drop its charges.

But the Candlelight Party was given a much-needed bump after Rong Chhun, an experienced and outspoken activist, said also on January 31 that he would run for the party at July’s parliamentary election. He’ll bring some much-needed panache to the outfit. And give ear to a statement he made at a press conference. “We believe that some people who right now are standing on the sidelines or unsure of whom to support or are awaiting the return of the [now-defunct] CNRP will see my presence as a candidate with Candlelight as the sign they have been waiting for and they will throw their support behind us,” he said.

Indeed, Cambodia’s opposition movement has been in limbo since the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the most potent opposition force in years, was forcibly dissolved by the government in 2017 on the patently bogus charge of plotting a coup. For a time, it seemed that maybe the CNRP could stage a comeback. Or, having been defanged, Hun Sen might take pity and allow it back (as he usually does with individual opposition politicians). And by 2021, it was also clear that the two wings of the party (it had formed as a merger between Sam Rainsy’s eponymous party, now the Candlelight Party, and Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party) were at an impasse, leading to mud-slinging from both sides.

By running at last June’s local elections, where it won just over a fifth of the vote, the Candlelight Party has pitched itself as a post-CNRP option for voters disaffected with Hun Sen’s party, which has been in power since 1979 and, since 2018, has ruled ever more dictatorially. The question now, just a few months before July’s general election, is what would merit success for the opposition party. Much depends on at what position in its evolution one sees it. If it is, as some think, a direct successor of the CNRP, it needs to win something near the 44 percent vote share the now-dissolved party won at the 2013 general election or the 2017 local elections. That’s unlikely, though. At last year’s local election, the other 15 smaller parties together received less than 4 percent of the popular vote. Even if the Candlelight Party can hoover up the combined anti-CPP vote, it would struggle to win more than a quarter of the overall tally.

That is unless it can either steal voters away from the CPP, which it will struggle to do in any meaningful sense. Or, perhaps more possible, it can convince a greater number of its supporters to turn up to vote and hope that many CPP backers stay away from the ballot box. In recent years, opposition parties have tended to perform better in elections with low voter turnout. In the 2013 general election, when the CNRP took 44 percent of the vote, turnout was lower than 70 percent. At the previous legislative ballot in 2008, when the opposition parties took around two-fifths of the vote, the turnout was 75 percent. But at the pretty-much uncontested 2018 general election, conducted after the CNRP was dissolved, the ruling CPP won nearly four-fifths of the vote with a turnout of 83 percent.

As such, the Candlelight Party’s fortunes depend on commitment amongst its own ranks and apathy from ruling party backers. Indeed, downplaying its own chances might actually be the smart move. If a significant number of voters think the result is a foregone conclusion for the CPP, and the ruling party isn’t as active as it was at the 2018 ballot at cajoling and paying off people to turn out to vote, then that could shift the percentages in the Candlelight Party’s favor. The CPP will have to be careful of not being too cocksure. Overconfidence does appear to be creeping in, however. Sok Eysan, a CPP spokesperson, recently told the Phnom Penh Post that he predicts the Candlelight Party “will not get more than 20 percent of the vote.”

Whatever happens in July, though, there’s a bigger problem. Say the Candlelight Party can win more than a third of the popular vote and gain a handful of parliamentary seats (which would be quite an achievement), then what? The opposition movement isn’t young. Kong Korm, who resigned last week, is 80 years of age, so his absence is not a long-term problem. Yet the Candlelight Party itself (despite various name changes) was formed in 1995 and, its main politicians aren’t young. Most of its senior leadership are in their 60s. Even Rong Chhun is 54 years old.

No doubt Hun Sen will continue his “lawfare” of eye-wateringly expensive lawsuits and threats of property confiscations, the sort of intimidation not easily handled by those entering their retirement years. Also, it’s incredibly difficult to have a generational change when one’s party is under constant attack from the authorities; is there a 30 or 40-year-old who wants to rise to national attention and attract $500,000 lawsuits from the CPP? And even if the CNRP apparatus were to return, Sam Rainsy is now 73, and Kem Sokha is 69. Maybe they’ll have Mahathir-like longevity, but even Hun Sen, now 70, understands the need to rejuvenate. The CPP is currently undergoing a major generational succession, as I’ve written about before. 45-year-old Hun Manet, the prime minister’s eldest son, could take over the top job this year. Dith Tina, 44, the energetic new agriculture minister, is a sign of things to come.

A third of the vote in July (which would merit success) may not be a building block for the opposition moving forward unless the party can rejuvenate. But July’s election may be a double-edged sword. If the Candlelight Party performs better than expected, it may be convinced to keep things as they are (with an elderly leadership) and resist its own generational succession out of fear that this would require root-and-branch reform at the very moment the party is gaining ground.

Just as important, a real problem for Cambodia’s opposition circles is that they constantly get bogged down in history. Most of its grandees came of age in the 1970s and 1980s, and still think politics is stuck in the schisms of 1979: Hun Sen and his alleged Vietnamese backers were the damnation after the Khmer Rouge’s overthrow, and Cambodia needs another “salvation.” (The “rescue” in the CNRP’s name can also be translated as “salvation”.) And they remain bogged down in the schisms of 2017, toing and froing over whether to stick with the status quo ante (the CNRP as the opposition linchpin, despite no real hope of its return) or plan for a post-CNRP environment. By throwing his hat into the Candlelight Party’s ring, Rong Chhun at least seems to be suggesting that something must give.