Cambodia: Democratic World Must Deny Hun Sen Legitimacy after Election with No Opposition

Two weeks after my article “Cambodia: Government invents red tape to stop opposition registering for election” appeared in The Geopolitics, my worst predictions have come true.

I wrote that the government was making up new bureaucratic obstacles to try to prevent the risk of any real opposition party being able to contest the national elections due on July 23.

It is now clear that the only real opposition party, the Candlelight Party (CLP), has been definitively banned from participating in the elections. The pretext given by the government via the National Election Committee (NEC) is purely administrative and escapes all logic. The country is plunged into a Kafkaesque universe typical of totalitarian regimes.

The autocratic prime minister Hun Sen, in power for 38 years, betrays his fears for the survival of his regime by resorting to such a gross procedure to prevent the CLP at the last moment from participating.

Hun Sen’s fear of the opposition

This is a very dangerous year for Hun Sen. It’s the year when he decided to establish a political dynasty by transferring power to his eldest son Hun Manet straight after the elections. This royal-type succession has provoked despair in all sections of Cambodian society. This despair is not limited to the opposition and civil society which Hun Sen has sought to eliminate by ever more brutal repression. It extends to the ranks of the ruling party, the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), where more and more powerful figures are turning against Hun Sen.

The first threat to Hun Sen’s succession plan is the CLP. The party has the potential to be the catalyst for the democratic change demanded by the people. Hun Sen has made his son Hun Manet, the designated future prime minister, the leading candidate on the list of 12 CPP candidates for the Phnom Penh constituency. For Hun Sen, Hun Manet and the Phnom Penh list must show a decisive victory to protect his family succession plan.

Who is capable of defeating Hun Manet and the CPP in Phnom Penh? Only the CLP can do it. Only the CLP and its predecessors have already been able to defeat the CPP in the capital, where the electorate is better educated and informed than in other parts of the country. Hun Sen has reportedly carried out recent opinion polls which show the opposition ahead.

The CLP was created in 1998 under the name of the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). I used my own name for this first post-communist party of parliamentary opposition to prevent CPP agents from stealing its name. This had already happened to another party which I had previously set up with a name which was not distinctive enough to avoid appropriation, the Khmer Nation Party (KNP), which was hijacked when Hun Sen staged his coup d’état in 1997.

The SRP defeated the CPP in Phnom Penh in 2003 by winning seven out of twelve parliamentary seats. The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), of which the SRP was a founding partner, repeated this victory in 2013, again with seven out of twelve seats. 

To avoid the repression orchestrated by Hun Sen against anything and anyone associated with Sam Rainsy, the SRP changed its name to the CLP in 2017. Its headquarters was still inside that of the CNRP. Immediately after the arbitrary dissolution of the CNRP in 2017, a police raid led to the loss of numerous original documents, including that which the NEC is now demanding from the CLP as a condition of letting it take part in the coming elections.

After a period of hibernation of about 10 years during which it lacked leadership, structures and resources, the CLP was very quickly reactivated to take part in the communal elections of June 2022. To general surprise, it scored 22% of the votes, despite intense repression and widely acknowledged electoral irregularities.

To explain the negligible results achieved by Cambodia’s newly created opposition parties in those local elections, David Hutt, an acknowledged expert writer on Cambodian politics, wrote in The Diplomat that “Cambodians don’t like opposition parties that aren’t in some way associated with Sam Rainsy.”

This resurgent opposition under the banner of the CLP shows the dynamic which could transform the political situation in the coming elections. Hun Sen’s fear of that dynamic led him to order the NEC to prevent the CLP from taking part on July 23.

Threadbare Pretext

For the first time, the NEC demanded that the CLP supply the original of the government attestation recognizing the opposition party as a “legally registered political party.” This attestation was provided by the ministry of the interior in 1998 to the SRP as the precursor of the CLP. The document which was a “Prakas” or “Government Official Proclamation” was signed by interior minister Sar Kheng himself who must have kept a copy of the original in the ministry archives.

In the 2022 commune election, the CLP was able to register its candidates with the NEC by presenting a copy of the original government attestation. The NEC changed the rules by demanding the original, which cannot be supplied. The CLP has informed the NEC that the document was lost in the 2017 police raid, to no avail.

To try and find a solution, the interior ministry of May 5, 2023, issued another attestation clearly stating that the CLP is indeed a “legally registered political party.”  The NEC did not accept this and continues to demand the original issued in 1998 by the same ministry.

This stubborn insistence on form as opposed to content is not an administrative problem, but results from the need to create a political roadblock. It is a threadbare pretext used by the Hun Sen-controlled NEC to prevent the electoral participation of the CLP.

Using bureaucratic means to block the CLP has the same consequences as Hun Sen’s decision to dissolve the CNRP via judicial means in 2017 to stop it taking part in the 2018 elections. In 2018, the CPP won 100% of the seats in the national assembly in the absence of any opposition worthy of the name, and is now set to do the same in July.

Hun Sen has to rely on bureaucratic and judicial tools to stay in power because his totalitarian regime has no popular legitimacy and no democratic mandate. The nations of the democratic world must therefore deny his regime any legitimacy.

[Photo by Tum Malis / VOA, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

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