Author: Sreang Chheat, UQ

Cambodians will go to the polls to choose their local councilors on June 5, 2022. The main candidates are the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the Candlelight Party. For many observers of democratic developments in Cambodia, the dissolution of the main opposition party in 2017 makes this election less a democratic vehicle for the peaceful transfer of power than a political tool for the legitimacy of the ruling CPP.

The last elections were held in 2017, when the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), a merger between the longtime opposition Sam Rainsy party and the relatively new Human Rights Party, performed well. . The election was followed by the dissolution of the CNRP by the government.

Cambodian democracy was born from the Paris peace agreement in 1991 but has never been consolidated. Democratic institutions still lack representation, independence and accountability. The situation of human rights and freedoms has fluctuated over the years.

The CPP maintained its dominant role, mainly through the sustained economic growth it presided over, as well as intimidation and coercion. The CPP first faced a credible challenger in 2013 when the CNRP received surprisingly strong support from voters and the CPP lost 20 of its parliamentary seats.

With the CNRP holding a significant number of seats in the National Assembly, the CPP was forced to give in on the reform of the National Electoral Commission and the promotion of a “culture of dialogue” as a clandestine platform for dialogue bipartisan.

2015 was a turning point. CNRP leader Sam Rainsy went into exile when Cambodian courts reimposed historic criminal charges against him. A new law on non-governmental organizations and associations has been passed, restricting the civic space for people to work on human rights and democracy-related issues. In October, two young CNRP deputies were beaten by pro-government demonstrators outside the National Assembly.

In 2017, the CPP began unilaterally amending the Political Parties Law, banning criminals from leading political parties or appearing in campaign materials. As a result, Sam Rainsy resigned as CNRP chairman to prevent the party from disbanding after his libel conviction was revived in 2015. Kem Sokha became the new CNRP chairman.

Despite the repression and harassment, the CNRP decided to stand in the 2017 local elections. The CNRP garnered 3.05 million votes, securing 489 commune chief positions and 5,007 councilor seats across the country. The CPP won 3.54 million votes, winning 1,156 commune chief positions and 6,503 councilor seats.

The surprisingly good performance of the CNRP posed a political threat to the CPP. Kem Sokha was charged with treason soon after.

On November 16, 2017, the Supreme Court dissolved the CNRP and banned more than 100 political party leaders for five years. This dissolution resulted in the resumption of the 55 National Assembly seats held by the CNRP by the ruling CCP and the royalist United National Front for an independent, neutral, peaceful and cooperative Cambodia. The local councilors were replaced by members of the CPP. This decision was strongly criticized by the international community as undemocratic.

The 2018 national elections were held without the main opposition and the CPP won all 125 seats in the National Assembly, establishing a one-party state.

Now that local elections are underway, there is hope for a return to multiparty politics. But those elections are overshadowed by the recent conviction of senior CNRP officials and local members in a mass trial for “incitement” and the ongoing trial of former opposition party chairman Kem Sokha for treason.

The Candlelight Party, formerly the Sam Rainsy Party, assumes the role of main competitor against the CPP. The Candlelight Party managed to register its candidates in 1623 municipalities out of a total of 1652 despite threats and intimidation against the party.

Whether these elections mark the return of democratic norms in Cambodia will depend on the performance of the main opposition. International observers, development partners, civil society representatives and the opposition party hope to see democratic processes re-emerge as a platform for political participation and a vehicle for a peaceful transfer of power, but no one knows if it will.

Much also depends on the CPP’s response to the election results. Concerns are growing over the reaction of the CPP if the votes are in favor of the opposition party. Will the Candlelight Party be dissolved in the same way as the CNRP?

If history is any indication, it’s hard to deny the possibility that politics as usual will emerge during and after Cambodia’s elections. Regardless of how the Candlelight Party performs, the CPP rule may prevail.

In the past, elections were little more than the ruling party’s political tool of legitimacy. There are no signs to suggest these will be any different.

Sreang Chheat is a PhD candidate at the University of Queensland. Sreang is interested in a wide range of topics related to democratic development, international development, and Chinese aid and investment in Cambodia and Southeast Asia.