Ahead of Cambodia’s national election on July 23, the disqualification of the most popular opposition group leaves the ruling Cambodian People’s Party facing close to no competition on the ballot.
On July 23, when Cambodians vote in an election to fill the 125 seats of its lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, they confront an electoral landscape that has changed dramatically over the past decade.
Ten years ago in 2013, a close race delivered a disputed result with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) claiming 49 percent of the vote to the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party’s (CNRP) 45 percent. Amid accusations of irregularities, the CNRP led a monthslong mass protest campaign.
Now, such scenes are unlikely, following a yearlong crackdown on opponents and critics. Like five years ago, when the CPP swept all seats at the 2018 national election after the CNRP was dissolved by the partisan Supreme Court, the ruling party faces only minor parties in the upcoming contest. This is because the CNRP’s short lived attempt at reemerging under the Candlelight Party was squashed after it was disqualified in May this year over a paperwork technicality, a move condemned as “arbitrary” and “politically motivated” by a regional election monitor.
The CPP has hit back at suggestions that Candlelight’s absence on the ballot raises questions over the legitimacy of the election. The party points to the participation of smaller opposition parties, including the remnants of the once prominent royalist party, a ‘grassroots’ focused party and a party advocating for indigenous minorities, to support its claim that the country remains a multi-party democracy.
But most have little profile, scant resources and nothing close to the domestic or international support networks built by the CNRP and its members. The CPP, meanwhile, has been in power for more than four decades, led by Hun Sen, who became prime minister in 1985 and has announced plans to install his eldest son, army commander Gen. Hun Manet, as his successor. This comes amid a broader generational transition within the party reflected in several scions becoming candidates in the upcoming vote.
Of the small parties participating in the July, only seven have fielded candidates for all 125 National Assembly seats.
Among them is Funcinpec, the royalist party that co-governed the country with the CPP in the 1990s after it won the majority of votes in the 1993 United Nations-administered election that reconstituted war-torn Cambodia as a democracy. Using military force, Hun Sen ousted Funcinpec from the power-sharing agreement in 1997 and the party has since faded into political irrelevance.
In 2018, the party, led by Prince Norodom Chakravuth, son of its late former leader Norodom Ranariddh, won fewer votes than the total number of spoiled ballots, and last year failed to win any commune chief positions in the local election.
Another royalist figure competing in this election is former military chief Nhek Bun Chhay, who split from Funcinpec in 2016 and now leads the Khmer National United Party, which got less than 1 percent of the vote in the 2022 commune ballot.
Small parties targeting specific constituencies have also failed to win representative positions in past local and national elections. Cambodia Indigenous Peoples Democracy Party, which advocates for the rights of ethnic minority communities in the country’s northeast, did not pick up a single commune councilor position in 2017 and 2022 elections for the local government bodies.
The Grassroots Democracy Party, founded in 2015 by former civil society members who advocated an engaged, hyper-local approach to garnering support, also saw their strategy fail. The party, which has only fielded 83 candidates this election, failed to make an impact in recent ballots and several senior members left to join the government.
As the election nears, the pace of defections from opposition parties has increased. Unverified reports from a pro-government media outlet put the number of opposition members who had joined the CPP since January at more than 6.000. Some of those who defected did so after being arrested for critical comments.
A slew of tiny parties registered for the election have advocated positions advantageous to the ruling CPP such as attacking former CNRP members or supporting government moves to shut down independent media. The Cambodian Youth Party was created in 2015 and vowed to address issues like living standards and employment. Instead, the most notable contribution of the entity has been party president Pich Sros’s decision to file the 2017 complaint that led to the CNRP’s dissolution by the Supreme Court.
The giant squid
The Cambodian People’s Party led by Hun Sen has dominated modern Cambodian politics. It is the successor of the Kampuchean People's Revolutionary Party (KPRP), which, backed by the Vietnamese military, overthrew the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in 1979 and continued to fight a war against the radical communists until the last of toppled Khmer Rouge defected to the ruling party from their border bases in the 90s.
Its defeat and absorption of the Khmer Rouge under the so-called “win-win” policy forms a central plank of the party’s claimed legacy, with the core of its campaign message centering on the “peace and development” Cambodia has experienced in the past two decades, when its gross domestic product has grown by an average of around 7 percent per year.
The CPP controls all levers of state power - all government, armed forces and judicial leaders are members of its central committee - and has largely been the only party visibly campaigning in 2023.
Amid economic headwinds, like reduced global demand for its core exports of clothing, footwear and travel goods and high private debt, Hun Sen has vowed the party will focus on easing cost of living pressures, among several measures announced in its election manifesto.
The patronage network, impunity, and corruption that underpins the party’s power, however, has proven itself resistant to major reform. The CPP has, instead, created a government, business and military elite, connected by family ties, whose vast wealth contrasts with Cambodians average monthly disposable income of 566 US dollars (figures from 2021).
As the election approaches, the CPP is working to transition power to a new generation within this elite, a precarious process seeking to balance competing family economic interests. As well as the officially anointed prime ministerial successor Gen. Hun Manet, who is a candidate for a seat in Phnom Penh, the scions of several prominent party leaders are on the ballot. These include the sons of Interior Minister Sar Kheng, Defence Minister Tea Banh and the son-in-law of National Assembly President Heng Samrin.
Concerned with election participation and invalid ballots as a measure of credibility, the CPP is seeking to drive up voter turnout, with carrots and sticks. NGOs monitoring the election have recorded numerous examples of vote buying. At the same time, a law has been passed in the weeks before the ballot barring non-voters from running as candidates in future elections and penalties brought in for encouraging eligible voters to abstain from voting, as advocated by exiled opposition leaders.
Then and now
In the decade since almost suffering an electoral defeat, the CPP through a range of measures has moved to ensure there can be no such occurrence again in the near future.
It has been accused of pursuing a sustained crackdown on political opponents, critics, independent media and civil society, who face “intimidation, politically motivated prosecutions, and violence” according to Freedom House.
Most of the CNRP leadership, including longtime Hun Sen rival Sam Rainsy, is in exile after being targeted in a slew of legal cases. Rainsy’s CNRP co-founder Kem Sokha, who remained in the country, was sentenced to 27 years in prison on a charge of treason in March and is currently under house arrest pending the exhaustion of his appeals. More than 100 opposition activists have been prosecuted and convicted with almost two dozen serving prison terms. An NGO that tracks people detained in politically-linked cases records 52 “prisoners of interest”, a category that also includes land rights campaigners and unionists.
At the same time as opponents have been targeted in a campaign of legal harassment described by one human rights group as “lawfare”, several pieces of legislation have been introduced aimed at constraining NGOs and unions.
Unlike in the past, pressure by the liberal democratic countries has been unable to reopen the political and civil space. A review of Cambodia’s trade preferences with the EU, triggered by its oppression of political opponents, failed to persuade the authorities to drop the case against Sokha and ultimately led to the partial suspension of a duty-free import scheme important for the manufacturing sector.
Meanwhile, China, Cambodia’s most important benefactor, continues with investment and support. As well as backing loans for major infrastructure projects, Beijing provides the template for, and subsequent endorsement of, the CPP narrative of “non interference” and the “right to develop” deployed in response to Western criticism of the party’s shift away from the semi-competitive elections and open civil society ushered in by the United Nations in 1993.
While his election victory may be a foregone conclusion with no credible alternative, Hun Sen now faces the internal pressure of balancing elite interests as he transfers power within a highly personalized system and the ever-present demands of millions of Cambodians who, when given a choice, have voted for change.
The views of the author do not necessarily correspond to those of the Heinrich Böll Foundation e.V.