Cambodians will go to the polls Sunday to elect local commune councils in what observers believe will be a test case of support for a rising opposition party after five years of a coordinated campaign by Prime Minister Hun Sen and his supporters to squash dissent.
Hun Sen has ruled Cambodia for more than three decades. His Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is expected to win in a landslide, as it is the only political party large enough to field candidates nationwide.
Heading into Sunday’s vote, the United Nations Human Rights Office criticized what it called a “systemic shrinking” of political space in the country, leaving room only for the CPP.
“We are disturbed by the pattern of threats, intimidation and obstruction targeting opposition candidates ahead of communal elections in Cambodia on 5 June,” office spokesperson Liz Throssell said in a statement.
“Candidates have faced numerous restrictions and reprisals that have hindered their activities, with imprisonment of a number of candidates that appears designed to curb political campaigning. Four days before the election, at least six opposition candidates and activists are in detention awaiting trial while others summonsed on politically motivated charges have gone into hiding.”
Throssell noted the government’s response to the last commune elections, five years ago. The Supreme Court dissolved the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) after it performed well in the local races in 2017, a decision that paved the way for the CPP to take all 125 seats in the National Assembly in the 2018 general election.
Though the country is essentially now a one-party state, a new opposition party, the Candlelight Party, has entered the fray and will face its first major test on Sunday.
The Future Forum, an independent think tank based in Phnom Penh, called the election a “litmus test” for the country.
“The outstanding and primary concern of any election cycle set today is the absence of a viable political opposition,” it said in a report. “This in itself renders the anticipated outcome of such processes reasonably predictable. It is however crucial to note that, versus the 2018 cycle, there are a larger number of electoral observers, and the presence of an alternative vote for nearly all communes in the kingdom.”
The elections will not have much effect on the balance of national power, as commune councils are concerned mostly with local matters. But councilors elected Sunday will vote on behalf of their constituents in 2024 elections for the Cambodian Senate.
Election watchers are looking at the contest between the CPP and 16 other parties for 11,622 seats in 1,652 rural and urban precincts to find out how much support the opposition Candlelight Party can win in the atmosphere and after months of harassment from the ruling party.
Members of parliaments in other Southeast Asian countries condemned “harassment and intimidation” suffered by the opposition during the campaign.
In a statement released Friday, the ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) took issue with incidents of political bullying by local officials.
“It is impossible to hold free and fair elections in an ongoing climate of persecution against the opposition … these polls cannot be regarded as an exercise in pluralism and democracy when the CPP led by Prime Minister Hun Sen is not allowing anyone who can challenge their power to campaign freely and safely,” said Maria Chin Abdullah, a member of the Malaysian Parliament and an APHR member.
“The intimidation of the opposition we are witnessing now is nothing new. It is part of a long pattern in which Hun Sen and his party have maintained and increased their control over Cambodia, closing the space for opposition and rights defenders to dissent without fear of reprisal. This does not bode well for the future of democracy in Cambodia. The outcome of this local election will pave the way for next year’s national elections and will determine who will control the country’s overall political power,” Abdullah said.
She urged neighboring countries to “maintain a critical eye” on Cambodia and not accept that Sunday’s elections would be a true democratic exercise, criticizing the elections as “another attempt by the CPP to legitimize its increasingly dictatorial rule.”
Campaign draws to a close
On the last day of the official two-week campaign Friday, the CPP and Candlelight Party held political rallies all over the country, with thousands in the capital Phnom Penh attending the rallies for both sides.
Hun Sen’s son Hun Many attended campaign events in the capital, as CPP supporters including famous celebrities drove luxury cars in a convoy, hoping to sway voters with star appeal.
Candlelight supporters drove their own convoy through the city, using megaphones to remind people to vote.
Both sides reflected on the campaign period optimistically.
“For the past 14 days, we have showed that we are better and more firmly situated than other parties,” Sar Kheng, who is the CPP’s vice president and the country’s minister of interior, said to supporters while leading campaign activities in the southern province of Prey Veng.
“We have shown that the CPP is the only party can guarantee peace and read development,” he said.
Candlelight’s vice president, Thach Setha, who led campaign activities in Phnom Penh Friday, told RFA’s Khmer Service that his party has received overwhelming support because the voters recognize their true need for democracy. He acknowledged that the campaign is supported mainly by donations from supporters.
During Friday’s convoy, people cheering the party on provided campaigners with water from the roadsides, he said.
“[The people] want change, and they want to tell the CPP that they want change, they don’t want to keep doing the same thing,” Thach Setha said.
The campaign period was mostly peaceful, Hang Puthea, spokesperson for the country’s National Election Commission (NEC), told RFA.
“Over the past 14 days, there was no violence or threats,” he said. The NEC received only 52 complaints during the campaign period. “The campaigns were helped with good security and order,” he said.
But Kang Savang, a coordinator at the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), noted that the property of opposing political parties have been destroyed and civil servants have abused their positions by using government resources for campaign activities.
Comfrel is urging the government to review the status of civil servants, members of the military and court officials, who participated in campaign activities, he told RFA, because these people cannot serve the public while out campaigning.
“We’re giving these recommendations so the law can be strengthened by using this years’ experience to improve the situation ahead of the 2023 general election,” he said.
Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.