Cambodia will launch a two-week election campaign for local communal councils on Saturday, a contest for grassroots bodies that will not tip the balance of power in a country that autocratic Prime Minister Hun Sen has ruled for nearly four decades, but also considered a measure of electoral integrity.
The limited power of communal councils – which vote on behalf of their constituents in the 2024 elections for the Cambodian Senate – has not dampened anticipation for the June 5 elections in a country that has endured five years of civil liberties crackdowns. 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 incumbent power and patronage in what Hun Sun has effectively transformed into a one-party state nationwide.
“Cambodia’s communal elections have always been a low-stakes affair for the ruling party because of its control over rural areas at the grassroots level,” said Sophal Ear, an author and political analyst who teaches at the Arizona State University.
“And this next communal election is not different but even more extreme in the degree of control at the national level,” he added.
But election observers are examining the competition between the CPP and 16 other parties for 11,622 seats in 1,652 rural and urban constituencies to find out how much support the opposition Candlelight party can win in the atmosphere and after months of harassment by of the ruling party.
“Civic and political space in Cambodia has receded and regressed due to what is effectively an intrusive one-party rule,” said Vitit Muntarbhorn, UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia.
“The outlook for human rights and democracy in the country remains daunting on many fronts, particularly in the run-up to communal elections,” he told RFA.
The Candlelight Party rose from the ashes of the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), whose strong performance in the previous communal elections in 2017 prompted Hun Sen to have the party disbanded, 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 now lives in exile and faces a series of accusations from his supporters in a bid 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 Cambodia’s second largest political party and largest opposition party.
The party has grown over the past year. With its rise came what Candlelight officials say are fabricated accusations that the party used false names for candidates and fielded candidates in violation of Cambodian election laws.
Several Candlelight Party activists have been imprisoned for submitting false documents to stand for local elections.
In February, authorities in the northwest province of Battambang ordered the Candlelight Party to remove a sign from a citizen’s home, even though national officials pledged to campaign freely and fair, without political or partisan discrimination.
On April 9, Prak Seyha – a party youth leader from Kambol district in Phnom Penh – was attacked and beaten by a mob.
On the same day, Choeun Sarim, party candidate for Chhbar Ampov district in Phnom Penh, was killed in traffic while traveling on a motorbike from Takeo province in southern Cambodia to the capital, Phnom Penh.
His wife said he had been threatened and assaulted before his death, which she said was caused by a blow to the back.
On April 11, Khorn Tun, a Candlelight Party activist and commune candidate in Ponhea Krek district, Tabaung Khmom province, was attacked by unidentified men who threw stones at her house.
Flags and marches
The Candlelight Party has sent flags, about 3 million leaflets and party uniforms to its supporters across the country, party deputy chairman 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 a bid to drum up more support.
“We urge all activists and supporters to join our march to show their support for the Candlelight Party and to show up for a chance,” he said.
The ruling party has also been active in shipping materials for the campaign, but will not hold mass rallies, CPP spokesman Sok Ey San told RFA.
“Activists will visit voters’ homes to brief them on 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 party, the United National Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia, a royalist party known as Funcinpec, plans to hold a rally with the party’s chairman and around 1,000 supporters in the province from Kandal in the south, the party spokesman Ngouen Raden told RFA.
“In each province, task forces will meet voters in their homes,” he said.
The National Election Commission (NEC) on Tuesday urged parties to comply with measures to keep campaigning peaceful and non-violent. He also called on authorities at all levels to remain neutral and impartial, allowing all candidates access to public places.
The NEC is working with authorities to coordinate planned marches by party supporters to avoid confrontation, commission spokesman Hang Puthea told RFA.
“So far, no negative issues have been reported yet. I have observed that every 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 observers to monitor the campaigns in Phnom Penh and other areas, Kang Savan, an observer from the NGO, told RFA.
Despite the trappings of a healthy campaign, the contest does not meet basic definitions of democracy, Ear said.
“Managed democracy – if you even call it that – in Cambodia is about giving people little or no choice in reality, as long as the main opposition party is excluded,” he told RFA.
“When you race but you disqualify your main competition, is that a real race? No. That’s not what everyone who believes in democracy does.
Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.