Yesterday, Cambodia’s Constitutional Council confirmed that the country’s largest opposition party will not be able to participate in national elections in July, all but ensuring another clean sweep by Prime Minister Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).
Im Chhun Lim, the president of the Constitutional Council, announced that the Candlelight Party (CLP) failed to provide its original certificate of registration as a political party, according to a report by CamboJA News.
“The Constitutional Council decided to accept [Candlelight’s] appeal… but it was denied as illegitimate and contrary to the law,” said Im Chhun Lim, who, as CamboJA points out, is also a member of the Central Committee of the CPP. “This is a final decision and there can be no further complaint.”
On May 15, the National Election Committee (NEC) announced that it had refused to accept the CLP’s application for the July 23 election, for failing to attach a notarized copy of the party’s registration document with its application. The CLP claims that the original 1998 document was lost in 2017, when the authorities raided the headquarters of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), shortly after it was dissolved over a far-fetched plot to overthrow the CPP administration. It has also argued that this was not a requirement for last year’s commune elections.
Prom Vicheth Akara, the deputy secretary general and spokesperson of the Constitutional Council, told a press conference that 18 parties had been approved to run in the July 23 polls. (The other party excluded was the tiny Khmer United Great Nation Party.) He also attempted to defend the legitimacy of the elections.
“I would like to verify that there is not one party running in the election, but there are 18 political parties running in the upcoming elections,” Akara said, according to CamboJA. “So the principle of a democracy multiple-party is still fully guaranteed as mandated in the constitution.”
This is only true in the strictest and most technical sense. The CLP, which captured around 22 percent of the popular vote at commune elections last year, was the only party standing between the CPP and a repeat of its 2018 performance, when it won all 125 seats in the National Assembly. The 2018 election, which followed the dissolution of the CNRP the previous November, was the first election since the creation of Cambodia’s current democratic system not to feature a prominent opposition, and 2023 looks set to repeat that history. The remaining 17 parties contending with the CPP are all small, and either electoral impotent or expressly supportive of the ruling dispensation.
Since its emergence in late 2021, the CLP threatened to fill the vacuum left by the CNRP, which scored significant gains at the national election in 2013, by tapping into the discontent that had begun to bubble up under the CPP’s stifling consensus. This all but ensured that the CLP faced near-constant intimidation and pressure, including politically motivated lawsuits and violent attacks on opposition activists and supporters.
In an emailed statement, Phil Robertson of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch described the dismissal of the CLP’s appeal as “entirely predictable and totally undemocratic.”
“If this action is allowed to stand, it will constitute the final death knell for Cambodian democracy,” Robertson said. “This decision turns the national election in July 2023 into a total farce designed solely to rubber stamp the continuing dictatorial rule of Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party.”
Still, given that the party had little chance of unseating the CPP, it is curious that the government has felt the need to bar it from participating. Even the figment of a competitive election would have helped Cambodia’s relationship with the West, which significantly soured after the banning of the CNRP and the CPP’s Assad-like sweep of the 2018 election.
Sure enough, in a statement yesterday, a spokesperson for the U.S. State Department said that it was “deeply troubled” by the decision, and said that the U.S. government “does not plan to send official observers to the July elections, part of an electoral process that many independent Cambodian and international experts assess is neither free nor fair.” The NEC’s previous decision has also been criticized by the European Union and a number of other Western governments.
Strangely, Hun Sen said in a speech today that the CLP, realizing that it could not win the election, had purposely botched their registration to generate political pressure from Western governments.
“Their purpose, which I analyze here, is that they do not want this party to participate in this election because they know it will lose,” he said. “But what they really want is for the foreigners to put pressure on Cambodia.”
While this comment reflects the Cambodian leader’s political paranoia and conspiratorial bent, the CLP’s exclusion probably has more to do with the looming handover of power from Hun Sen to his eldest son, Hun Manet, which is expected to take place sometime in the upcoming five-year term – though no one knows exactly when. This transition will be a risky business: If ever the CPP’s internal disagreements and rivalries, which have almost always been kept in-house, were to break into the open, it would be at a moment of transition. That alone requires the preservation of social and political “stability” – whatever the response from the Western countries. Hun Sen, fortified by strong Chinese diplomatic support, has been increasingly indifferent to criticism from other parties.