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The Battle for Democracy: A Look at Thailand and Cambodia’s 2023 Elections

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The Battle for Democracy: A Look at Thailand and Cambodia’s 2023 Elections

Will the two elections result in the further erosion of democratic and human rights norms, or will they produce a glimmer of hope?

The Battle for Democracy: A Look at Thailand and Cambodia’s 2023 Elections
Credit: Flickr/Ryan Milani

Thailand and Cambodia, two neighboring countries in Southeast Asia, are preparing to hold general elections this year. Thailand is scheduled to hold its polls on May 14, while Cambodia will follow on July 23.

In Thailand, the military-dominated government led by the Palang Pracharath Party (PPRP) has been employing authoritarian tactics against dissidents, including the use of arbitrary detention and lese-majeste charges. The country experienced mass anti-government protests in 2020-2021 that were fueled by the military’s continued hold on power and the monarchy’s involvement in governance, but the movement has since lost its momentum.

In Cambodia, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) led by Prime Minister Hun Sen has dominated the political system for nearly four decades. Since the 2018 elections, the parliament has been fully controlled by the ruling party following the court-ordered dissolution of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). In recent years, Hun Sen’s government has intensified its repression of the opposition, civil society activists, and independent media with intimidation and politically motivated prosecutions.

Thailand has recently changed its electoral system by increasing the number of constituencies from 350 to 400, reducing the number of party-list seats from 150 to 100, and reintroducing the system in which each voter will cast two ballots – one for a constituency candidate and one for a political party. These changes are expected to benefit large parties like the PPRP and the opposition Pheu Thai Party, but they may hurt smaller parties that rely on party list seats.

Pheu Thai’s Paetongtarn Shinawatra, the younger daughter of former premier Thaksin Shinawatra, has emerged as the most popular choice for prime minister. according to the latest opinion poll. Meanwhile, incumbent Prayut Chan-o-cha only ranks third. Although Pheu Thai is expected to win big, forming the government remains a challenge because the prime minister will be elected by both houses of parliament. Given that all 250 members of the Senate are selected by the military, the military-backed candidate theoretically only needs 126 seats from the House of Representatives to be elected prime minister.

However, even if Pheu Thai and other opposition parties manage to form a coalition government after the election, the threat of a military coup looms large. Thailand has a history of frequent shifts between democratic elections and military takeovers since transitioning to a constitutional monarchy 90 years ago, and these threats continue to cast a shadow over the country’s political landscape.

In Cambodia, dozens of opposition leaders who were banned from politics following the dissolution of the CNRP have undergone “political rehabilitation” and regained their political rights, leading to the rise of the reactivated opposition Candlelight Party. The Candlelight Party managed to garner one-fifth of the popular vote in its debut commune elections last year. Compared to the 2017 commune elections, where the CNRP won 44 percent of the popular vote, the Candlelight Party’s achievement cannot be regarded as a significant electoral threat to the CPP’s rule.

While Thailand has seen the emergence of influential opposition leaders, such as Pita Limjaroenrat of the Move Forward Party and Paetongtarn Shinawatra of the Pheu Thai Party, Cambodia has yet to produce a similar figurehead for its opposition movement since CNRP President Sam Rainsy was forced into exile in 2015 and his deputy Kem Sokha was arrested in 2017. Despite this, the opposition in Cambodia continues to face intimidation, harassment, and politically motivated prosecution by the CPP. The uncertainty surrounding Hun Sen’s succession plan, which involves passing power to his son Hun Manet, has led the regime to intensify measures to suppress political opposition and independent media organizations. In the first quarter of this year alone, there have been incidents of judicial harassment against Candlelight Party leaders, the shutdown of independent media outlet VOD, and the sentencing of Kem Sokha to 27 years imprisonment on charges of treason.

Against such a backdrop, threats against the opposition and civil society are expected to continue, and genuine and legitimate elections will not be possible. Unlike the elections in Thailand where some level of uncertainty exists, it is already certain that the CPP will continue its rule after the July election. However, the CPP may consider allocating some seats to the opposition to dispel Cambodia’s image as a one-party state. The CPP itself anticipates winning a majority of the seats with a projected 104, and the remaining 21 seats could potentially be secured by the Candlelight Party.

History has shown that a united and well-organized opposition is a crucial requirement to overcome authoritarianism, especially under the first-past-the-post electoral system. This was evident in Malaysia’s 2018 and 2022 elections. However, in Thailand, the opposition remains fragmented, which gives the ruling military proxy party an advantage. In Cambodia, although some opposition parties have attempted to merge to challenge the ruling CPP, no opposition has emerged strong enough yet to mount a formidable challenge to CPP’s continued rule.

Both Thailand and Cambodia have a shared history of undemocratically dissolving opposition parties. For instance, in Thailand, the Thai Raksa Chart Party and the Future Forward Party were dissolved in 2019 and 2020, respectively, while in Cambodia, the CNRP suffered the same fate in 2017. There have been concerns that these countries may make similar moves again in response to growing opposition support, but there is currently no indication that either country will resort to such tactics, at least not until the upcoming elections.

The victory of the opposition in Thailand would be a major step toward the country’s democratic advancement, which has been hindered by military dictatorship since 2014. It would also convey an encouraging message to countries in the region that are struggling to transition to democracy, such as Cambodia and Myanmar.

If Thailand’s PPRP and Cambodia’s CPP were to win their respective elections, it could lead to further consolidation of power of authoritarian parties in both countries. This could potentially lead to a further erosion of democratic institutions and human rights, with far-reaching consequences beyond these two countries. Such an outcome will only encourage other authoritarian governments to tighten their grip on power and suppress dissent. The developments of these two elections, therefore, warrant close watch.