Cambodia’s commune campaign to test country’s electoral integrity

Cambodia will launch a two-week election campaign for local commune councils Saturday, a contest for grassroots bodies that won’t tip the scales of power in a country autocratic Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled for nearly four decades, but also seen as a measure of electoral integrity.

The limited power of commune councils––who vote on behalf of their constituents in the 2024 elections for the Cambodian Senate––hasn’t dampened anticipation ahead of the June 5 election in a country that has endured a five-year crackdown on civil liberties and other freedoms by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

The CPP, the only party large enough to field candidates nationwide, is expected to win a landslide victory, enjoying the power of incumbency and patronage in what Hun Sun has effectively turned into a one-party state at the national level.

“Commune elections in Cambodia have always been a low stakes affair for the ruling party because of how much control they have in rural areas at the local level,” said Sophal Ear, an author and policy analyst who teaches at Arizona State University.

“And this next commune election is no different but even more extreme in how much control there is at the national level,” he added.

But 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.

Civic and political space in Cambodia has receded and regressed due to what is effectively all-intrusive single-party rule,” said Vitit Muntarbhorn, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Situation of Human Rights in Cambodia.

“The outlook for human rights and democracy in the country remains disconcerting on many fronts, especially in the lead up to the commune elections,” he told RFA.

The Candlelight Party has risen from the ashes of the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), whose strong showing in previous communal elections in 2017 prompted Hun Sen have the party dissolved, paving the way for his CPP to win all 125 parliamentary seats in 2018.

The Candlelight Party was founded in 1995 by Hun Sen’s political rival Sam Rainsy, who is now living in exile facing a raft of charges his supporters sat are designed to keep him out of politics.

Candlelight, which merged with another party to form the CNRP in 2012 but is not subject to the opposition ban, is now the second largest political party in Cambodia and the largest opposition party.

The party has been gaining steam over the past year. With its rise has come what Candlelight officials say are made up accusations that the party has used fake names for candidates and has put forward candidates in violation of Cambodian election laws.

Several Candlelight Party activists have been jailed on allegations of submitting false documents to run in the communal elections.

In February, authorities in the northwestern province of Battambang ordered the Candlelight Party to remove a sign from a citizen’s house, even though national officials pledged a free and fair campaign, without political and partisan discrimination.

On April 9, Prak Seyha — a party youth leader for Phnom Penh’s Kambol district — was attacked and beaten by a mob.

That same day, Choeun Sarim, a party candidate for Phnom Penh’s Chhbar Ampov district, was killed in traffic while traveling by motorbike from southern Cambodia’s Takeo province to the capital, Phnom Penh.

His wife said he had been threatened and assaulted prior to his death, which she said was caused by a blow from behind.

On April 11, Khorn Tun, a Candlelight Party activist and a commune candidate in Tabaung Khmom province’s Ponhea Krek district — was attacked by unidentified men who threw rocks at her home.

Flags and marches

The Candlelight Party has sent flags, about 3 million leaflets and party uniforms to its supporters around the country, the party’s vice president Thach Setha told RFA’s Khmer Service.

The party plans to march through the streets of Phnom Penh with thousands of supporters on Saturday in an effort to drum up more support.

“We urge all activists and supporters to participate in our march to express their support for the Candlelight Party and to show up for a chance,” he said.

The ruling party has also been active in shipping out materials for the campaign, but will not hold massive rallies, CPP spokesman Sok Ey San told RFA.

“Activists will visit voters’ houses to inform them about the party’s political platform,” he said, adding that the most active days will be the first and last days of the campaign period.

The country’s third largest party, the National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia, a royalist party known as Funcinpec, plans to hold a rally with the party president and about 1,000 supporters in Kandal province in the south, the party’s spokesman Ngouen Raden told RFA.

“In each province, working groups will meet voters at their houses,” he said.

The National Election Commission (NEC) on Tuesday urged the parties to comply with measures intended to keep the campaigns peaceful and nonviolent. It also asked authorities at all levels to remain neutral and impartial, allowing all candidates access to public places.

The NEC is working with authorities to coordinate marches planned by party supporters so that confrontation can be avoided, the commission’s spokesman, Hang Puthea, told RFA.

“Until now, there are no negative issues reported yet. I have observed that each party has already prepared for the election campaign tomorrow at 6 a.m.,” he said.

The Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) has deployed 20 monitors to follow campaigns in Phnom Penh and other areas, Kang Savan, a monitor for the NGO, told RFA.

Despite the trappings of a healthy campaign, the contest fails to meet basic definitions of democracy, said Ear.

“Managed democracy–if you even call it that–in Cambodia is about giving people little to no choice in reality, so long as the main opposition party is excluded,” he told RFA.

“When you race but disqualify your main competition, is that a real race? No. It’s not what anyone who believes in democracy does.”

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

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