Is Cambodia’s New Election Amendment Actually About ‘Pardoning’ Exiled Opposition Leaders?

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Is Cambodia’s New Election Amendment Actually About ‘Pardoning’ Exiled Opposition Leaders?

Changes to election laws will give Prime Minister Hun Sen added room for maneuver as he prepares to hand power to his son, Hun Manet.

Is Cambodia’s New Election Amendment Actually About ‘Pardoning’ Exiled Opposition Leaders?
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On June 23, Cambodia’s National Assembly approved a hastily-drafted amendment to the country’s election law that will prohibit anyone who doesn’t vote in next month’s general election from running as a candidate in future elections. Prospective candidates, the amendment says, must have voted in at least the two elections immediately prior to running for office.

The logic behind this amendment is obvious. Hun Sen wants to use July’s general election as a referendum on his plan to hand over power to his eldest son, Hun Manet. Because there are still some jitters within the ruling party about this succession and Hun Sen wants to give it a “democratic” veneer, a large voter turnout will be used by the Cambodian leader to claim that it confers legitimacy on the process. A low voter turnout, however, would cast doubt on how much the public agrees with his plans. At worst, it could inspire a mutiny within the CPP ranks against the whole succession plan. Less extreme, it would be a bad start for a Manet administration, which could transpire in August. Moreover, Hun Sen wants to depart the premiership, after almost four decades in the job, with some fanfare, regardless of whether that electoral round of applause is fear-induced.

Perhaps Hun Sen has been planning this all along, but the timing of the amendment does appear suspect. He first raised the issue in public during a speech on June 12, just weeks before the July 23 election. Granted, he knows that any law he proposes will be hastily rushed through parliament. But why leave it so late? Perhaps it was simply the last-minute way of preventing low voter turnout, as most of the commentary around it seems to believe.

Yet the amendment actually has little to do with ordinary voters. It does contain punishments for individuals and political parties who discourage people from voting. Under one new article, a fine of between $1,200 and $4,800 can be leveled against those who incite others not to register to vote or not to vote, to spoil ballot papers, or to buy votes through bribery. Those convicted will be stripped of their right to stand as candidates, and any party that runs such individuals can also be fined. If a political party is convicted of inciting people not to vote, it can be dissolved.

But the government threatened fines and imprisonment for those who did the same at the 2018 general election (when there was an explicit call from the opposition for a boycott) yet didn’t see any need for a legal amendment at the time. Indeed, those threats alone saw a voter turnout of 83 percent in 2018, up 13 percentage points from the previous national election. Moreover, if you want to stop significant numbers of ordinary people from boycotting the election (a number that would have to be in the hundreds of thousands to be meaningful), a restriction on not being able to run for office is probably not the most serious deterrent.

Instead, this amendment seems to be more long-term focused. My Diplomat colleague Sebastian Strangio brushed the surface of another motivation. The amendment, he wrote, means that “opposition figures living in exile abroad, unable to vote in the upcoming election, would automatically be disqualified from future elections.” That’s especially the case for the politicians who fled the country in 2017 after the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the largest opposition party in decades, was forcibly dissolved. Most of them didn’t vote in the 2018 general election or 2021 local elections, and won’t vote in July. (Remember that a prospective candidate must have voted in at least two elections immediately prior to running for national office.) Neither did Kem Sokha, the CNRP president who was convicted of treason in early March, more than five years after his arrest.

In one post-election scenario, Hun Manet assumes the prime ministership and Hun Sen takes a leading role behind the scenes, yet they attempt to engage in some opening up of politics. After all, a neophyte Manet administration wouldn’t be best served by a further worsening of relations with Western democracies, Cambodia’s main export partners. Moreover, the country’s political establishment could really do with some calm in foreign relations after a torpid few years of high-wire maneuvering between China and the West.

One doesn’t want to ascribe too much foresight (or conspiracy) to Hun Sen’s thinking, but an electoral amendment such as the one about to become law would make sense if he was considering a pardon for Kem Sokha and allowing some of the exiled CNRP politicians back into the country. Or, rather, it would be a useful device for a young Manet administration if it wants to curry favor with the West at the same time as further dividing the opposition movement.

After all, it would fix two problems. Because they would not have voted in July, nor in elections in 2021 or 2018, those currently exiled opposition figures cannot “legally” run for office again. Interior Minister Sar Kheng was explicit in saying that, as Radio Free Asia paraphrased him, “Anyone who doesn’t vote next month won’t be able to run as a candidate in next year’s Senate, district, and commune elections.” They also won’t be able to run in the next general election in 2028, he added.

At the same time, pardoning Kem Sokha would considerably change the mood of Western governments, which appear to be debating whether to impose further sanctions on Cambodia over the conduct of next month’s election. Pardoning Kem Sokha and allowing some of the exiled CNRP politicians back into the country would be accepted by Western governments as a mea culpa by an infantile Manet administration. One can only imagine the narratives if a Manet administration was to engage in such a move. Many in Western capitals already seem to have accepted that they will need to take a wait-and-see approach with Manet, who they also think will be a less repressive leader than his father.

Some commentators thought that Kem Sokha would be quickly pardoned after his conviction in March. But Hun Sen seems to prefer to keep forgiveness in his back pocket, to be pulled out at a time when he really needs it. One problem, before now, was that a pardon would have meant Kem Sokha could have returned to politics. And if he proved to be popular again, the government would either have to accept his challenge or find an excuse to re-arrest him. Now, it can pardon him and not have to worry about his return to politics.

The same goes for the dozens of CNRP lawmakers who fled the country after the party’s dissolution. A small number have been “allowed” to return to Cambodia after public apology sessions or defecting to the ruling party. But many remain active abroad, stirring up anti-CPP sentiment in foreign capitals and among the Cambodian diaspora. Most are aging, though, and would probably prefer to be living at home, if they were free from criminal investigation and government repression.

One cannot discount how personal Hun Sen’s rivalry with Sam Rainsy, the CNRP figurehead, has become. It’s no longer for cynical political reasons that Hun Sen wants to crush and embarrass his rival. Imagine the situation where other CNRP grandees return home (albeit to live out their lives away from politics) but Sam Rainsy is the only one who cannot.

Of course, all this is speculation. And, even if it nears the truth, it doesn’t have to happen immediately after the election, nor this year or next. Just as Hun Sen has kept Kem Sokha’s pardon in reserve for use at the most opportune moment, this new electoral amendment now gives him and his son additional room to maneuver. If Manet learns anything from his father, it’s to equip yourself with all the political tools that might be needed someday.