20 Parties Register to Compete in Cambodia’s July Election

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20 Parties Register to Compete in Cambodia’s July Election

However, nine parties’ applications have yet to be approved, including the Candlelight Party, the only one with any chance of challenging Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP.

20 Parties Register to Compete in Cambodia’s July Election

Candidate lists assembled by Cambodia’s Candlelight Party as seen in a photo posted to its Facebook page on May 7, 2023.

Credit: Facebook/ណបក្សភ្លើងទៀន Candlelight Party

Twenty political parties have registered for Cambodia’s parliamentary election in July, the country’s National Election Committee (NEC) announced yesterday, though nine of them have not yet been approved, including the one opposition party of any significance.

According to The Associated Press, the nine outstanding applications are still under review, including that of the Candlelight Party (CLP), the only party with any chance of challenging Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The NEC has requested that the CLP replace one of its candidates – the popular union leader Rong Chhun, who was released from prison in late 2021 after being convicted of “incitement to commit a felony”  – and to provide additional documentation.

Since its reemergence in late 2021, the CLP – the latest iteration of the political party first founded by longtime opposition leader Sam Rainsy in 1995 – has filled the vacuum left by the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which was disbanded in 2017 by a controversial court ruling that said it had plotted the illegal overthrow of Hun Sen’s government. The removal of the CNRP from the political landscape allowed the CPP to win all 125 seats in the National Assembly, and to establish itself in a position of nearly unassailable dominance.

With most of the CNRP’s senior leadership either in custody or abroad, the CLP has been allowed to re-register in its stead and won a creditable 22 percent of the popular vote at commune elections last year. But whether it has a chance to build on that return in July, and perhaps to parlay it into a minority presence in the National Assembly, remains to be seen.

Ahead of the NEC’s May 8 registration deadline, the CLP said that the election committee was demanding that it submit documents it could not provide – namely, the party’s original registration papers, issued by the Interior Ministry in 1998. In a recent article, Sam Rainsy wrote that the NEC, having previously been content to accept a photocopy of the Ministry letter, is now insisting that it produce a notarized copy. This “is impossible to obtain without the original,” Sam Rainsy wrote, which is “presumed to have been destroyed when the government seized the headquarters of the CNRP on Nov. 16, 2017.”

“Attempts to find a way to meet the new requirement have met with bureaucratic stonewalling,” he wrote, adding that the CLP “was allowed to contest the communal elections of June 2022 with the same documentation which it has now.”

If the Candlelight Party is not allowed to contest the July polls, the CPP will once again run virtually unopposed. This is not to say that its participation would alter the likely result of the polls. The party faces a host of manmade obstacles and handicaps, from its paltry financial resources to the nearly constant legal harassment that it has been subjected to since last year’s commune election. One of its vice presidents, Son Chhay, was in October found guilty of defaming the CPP and NEC by questioning the fairness of the commune election results and ordered to pay $750,000 in compensation. Another of the party’s vice presidents, the popular union leader Rong Chhun, also faces charges of “incitement to cause social disorder,” despite being released on bail in 2021. (He joined the party in January of this year.)

In January, the party’s president Thach Setha was arrested for attempting to pass fraudulent checks, and is also facing charges of “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest” after meeting CNRP supporters during a recent trip to South Korea.

The harassment has also taken more violent forms, the CLP claims. On Sunday, Rong Chhun told reporters that several party members have been intimidated, threatened, and even beaten up, though his party has chosen not to publicize the incidents. Indeed, it is fair to see the new NEC registration “requirements” as part of the spectrum of efforts aimed at disrupting the party’s election preparations, if not ruling out its participation entirely.

The election will be notable less for the outcome – a stage-managed acclamation of CPP rule – than for what it might suggest about the trajectory of Cambodian politics over the next five years. The period is likely to involve a historical pivot, as the 70-year-old Hun Sen, in power in one form or another since 1985, prepares to hand over power to his son Hun Manet. In this sense, whether or not the NEC permits the CLP to participate in the election – and have no doubt that the decision will be entirely political – will suggest how much political dissent it will be willing to permit during this transitional phase, if any.