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Cambodian local elections legitimized resurgent opposition party, exiled founder says

Though fraud and irregularities tainted the June 5 Cambodian local commune council elections, the opposition Candlelight Party showed that it can challenge Hun Sen’s ruling party in future elections, Candlelight’s exiled founder told RFA in an interview.

A statement issued by the National Election Committee (NEC) on Monday said the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) received 5.3 million popular votes to win 9,338 out of the 11,622 commune council seats that were contested, while the Candlelight Party (CLP) came away with 1.6 million votes and 2,180 seats.

“I don’t like the results, but I like political change in Cambodia,” exiled opposition leader and CLP founder Sam Rainsy told RFA’s Khmer Service. “It’s a drastic change now, compared with before. Before we were only a one party state, from the central government to the grassroots. The one party state has been ended.”

The NEC, an agency that supervises elections in Cambodia, said the election process went smoothly and the results could be trusted, but Candlelight Party candidates and election observers said they were victims of harassment and intimidation before and during the voting and the NEC did nothing to stop it.

In some cases, local authorities and CPP observer organizations were alone given access to the ballot counting, the CLP said, accusing the ruling party of vote-rigging.

Despite what he sees as questionable results, Sam Rainsy said that the CPP will face real competition in next year’s general election, when voters will choose members of the National Assembly.

“In the 2023 election, there will have to be a negotiation, because there are [essentially] only two political parties. They can’t just dissolve CLP. The CPP can’t have free ride. The forces of democracy have progressed,” Sam Rainsy said.

Should the Candlelight Party survive to contest next year’s election it would be a stark contrast to the main opposition party five years ago, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

After the CNRP won 43% of the vote in the last commune council elections in 2017, the party’s leader Kem Sokha was arrested for treason and the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP, paving the way for the CPP to win all 125 parliamentary seats in 2018’s general election.

This began a five-year crackdown by Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia since 1985, on civil liberties and other freedoms that stripped CNRP members of their political rights and forced many of them to join Sam Rainsy in exile or risk imprisonment. Sam Rainsy has been in France since 2015

Though the CNRP’s dissolution was a major setback for the country’s opposition, the Candlelight Party’s performance on Sunday gives Sam Rainsy hope that a stronger opposition party can emerge in Cambodia and restore the democratic balance, he said.

“We took votes away from the CPP. We must now focus on free and fair elections in 2023. The political situation is now better than it was before this election,” he said.

“Only the CLP is capable of competing with the CPP. … There is only one [viable] opposition party and that is the CLP. [The CPP] can’t avoid the CLP,” he said, adding that in preparation for next year’s election, the CLP intends to challenge the government to reform the NEC so that it can operate more in line with its stated purpose.

“We must change the NEC members, because it is being controlled by the ruling party,” he said.

Sam Rainsy, however, lamented that his equally popular political ally Kem Sokha, with whom he cofounded the CNRP, did not support the CLP. Kem Sokha has said that Candlelight should not participate in what many believe is a compromised electio

“It seems he regarded the CPP and CLP as the same party.  I am sad. He will realize this is wrong,” he said. 

The journey toward Candlelight becoming Cambodia’s largest opposition party began when Sam Rainsy, on the heels of his expulsion from the National Assembly, founded it in 1995 as the Khmer Nation Party.

It later came to be known as the Sam Rainsy Party. In 2012, most of its members merged with Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party to form the CNRP, effectively mothballing the two parent parties.

Because of new laws that forbade political parties from making reference to anyone convicted on political charges, the Sam Rainsy Party changed its name to Candlelight in 2017, avoiding the ban of the CNRP.

However, once it was clear that the party was gaining steam before the communal elections, authorities began harassing the party, Candlelight Party sources have told RFA.

Several CLP activists have been jailed on allegations of submitting false documents to run in the communal elections, and many others were bullied or harassed by CPP supporters.

But Sam Rainsy said he was proud that the party was able to rise from the ashes of the CNRP on short notice. Most of Candlelight’s growth happened in the past few months in preparation for the commune elections.

“I must express appreciation to the wonderful voters. We must continue our struggle. The CLP is a base. We have time to prepare for 2023. We have a strong foundation and it will get stronger,” Sam Rainsy said.

“We will restructure the NEC and restore democracy to the country.”

 Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.