Chipping away at the one-party state . . .
On June 5, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) claimed a landslide victory in the local commune elections, the lowest level of government in Cambodia. Preliminary results indicate the CPP won 80 per cent of the 11,622 seats, while the main opposition Candlelight Party won 18 per cent. After the last commune elections five years ago, the Supreme Court dissolved the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), the main opposition party, and banned more than 100 of its members from politics for five years. As a result, the CPP was able to win all 125 National Assembly seats in an uncontested national election the following year, effectively re-creating a one-party state. While Sunday’s opposition gains of 18 per cent seem modest, leaders of the Candlelight Party said it demonstrates an important chipping away at the CPP’s power monopoly.
‘Neither free nor fair’ . . .
Comprising several former CNRP members, the rebranded Candlelight Party emerged in recent months as challenger to the CPP. Ahead of the commune elections, Candlelight Party candidates faced harassment and intimidation from government officials, including the threat of imprisonment and legal retaliation for their campaigning activities. International non-governmental organizations and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have raised concerns over the shrinking political space in Cambodia. On the day of the commune elections, election officials reportedly barred observers from monitoring the vote-counting process at polling stations. Still, according to local human rights group, the Cambodian League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights, they gave access to local authorities and representatives from CPP observer organizations. This raises concerns that the commune elections were neither free nor fair.
Facing an uncertain future . . .
Commune elections, usually held one year before national polls, are widely seen as a barometer of voter sentiment. But with many prominent former CNRP leaders in exile or facing criminal charges, and the opposition camp recently experiencing internal disagreements, some observers believe the Candlelight Party may not be able to galvanize enough support to challenge the CPP come national election time. Many are also concerned that the government may simply dissolve the Candlelight Party, as it dissolved the CNRP in 2017. It is unclear whether the European Union, which led the early charge of improving trade relations between Cambodia and the West, will respond to Cambodia's deteriorating political and human rights situation by further suspending its trade privileges under the “Everything But Arms” arrangement, as it did in 2020. Further EU sanctions could increase economic pressure on the country’s leaders but result in additional hardship for Cambodia’s population.
- Asian Network for Free Elections: Pre-Election Assessment Mission Report: Cambodia 2022 Commune and Sangkat Council Elections
- Asia Times: Hun Sen wins another one-horse race in Cambodia
- VOA News: Hun Sen’s party wins Cambodia’s local polls by landslides, early results show