Cambodia the return of democracy?

The end of June marks the 71st founding anniversary of the Cambodia People's Party (CPP) which has ruled Cambodia since 1979. Earlier this month, the country held the commune elections provoking mixed opinions. Are there any hopes on the horizon for the end to the autocratic rule of Hun Sen? 

“I see through these election results that democracy has improved due to the presence of the opposition and the fact that it has received a fair amount of support,” says Ratha Sun, a Cambodian environmental activist and human rights campaigner.  

Together with Long Kunthea, she has been charged with state treason – an accusation broadly seen as a form of intimidation toward civil society organizations.  

“According to many observers, there have been some irregularities in the election process,” she says.  “Polling stations, including village chiefs, commune chiefs, or district chiefs, as well as other authorities that infringe on voters' decision-making rights, have closed down during the count.”  

The commune elections were largely viewed as a bellwether for parliamentary elections which are due next year. The opposition Candlelight Party gained more votes than expected, accusing the ruling CPP of intimidation and voter fraud.  

Hun Sen, the leader of the CPP has been in power since 1985. Image: Wikimedia Commons

In power since 1985, Hun Sen, the leader of the CPP is now the longest-serving prime minister in the world. Previously, it had persecuted the leaders of the opposition, recently jailing a prominent Cambodian American lawyer for trying to help the exiled Sam Rainsy to return to Cambodia. 

Rainsy has been hailed as Cambodia’s leading champion of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. In the past, he left Cambodia after being charged with defamation and incitement, and since 2017, he has been banned from political activity. 

The Sam Rainsy Party changed its name to Candlelight in 2017, following the introduction of new laws that forbade parties from making reference to politicians convicted on political charges.  

The end of one-party rule 

Opposition has never had it easy in Cambodia. In 2017, the Cambodia National Rescue Party was forcibly dissolved, paving the way for the CPP to win all parliamentary seats in the 2018 national election. 

However, this year has seen the resurgence of the opposition.  

In the June 2022 commune elections, Hun Sen’s CPP captured 74 percent of the vote, while the main opposition Candlelight Party received 22 percent. In official statements, CPP rejoiced saying that it was celebrating “the outstanding result of a free, fair and just” election process”.  

All criticism regarding the atmosphere of intimidation was also dismissed by them despite the accusations of the widespread presence of security forces near polling booths.   

In the 2022 commune elections, the Candlelight Party won 22 percent of the vote. Image: Candlelight Party/Facebook

According to Ou Virak of Cambodian think-tank The Future Forum, “there’s not a lot of surprises” because results reflected the fact of a divided opposition and that the first-past-the-post formula favoured the largest party.  

Some analysts said they hoped the opposition would "rebuild and consolidate." 

"There is tremendous hunger for accountability and change in Cambodia. The only way to get that is to credibly show that, despite incredible odds, the opposition still gets votes," said another analyst, Sophal Ear of the Arizona University. 

Others stress that Hun Sen is likely to try to weaken the opposition in order to pave the smoother road to transferring the power to his son. Yet, most likely, he will not ban the opposition movements in the near future, fearing the sanctions from the EU and the US.  

The EU ranked as the fifth-biggest trade partner of Cambodia, accounting for nine percent of the country's total trade, while the USA sits at 15.5 percent and Hun Sen cannot afford to lose these trading partners. 

“I don’t like the results, but I like political change in Cambodia,” said Sam Rainsy, the exiled politician. “It’s a drastic change now, compared with before. Before we were only a one-party state, from the central government to the grassroots. The one-party state has been ended.” 

Despite the questionable results of the recent elections, Rainsy believes that Hun Sen’s party will face real competition in the 2023 general election when Cambodians will vote for members of the National Assembly. 

“In the 2023 election, there will have to be a negotiation, because there are [essentially] only two political parties. They can’t just dissolve Candlelight Party. The forces of democracy have progressed,” Rainsy summarized. 

Exiled Cambodian opposition politician Sam Rainsy. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Restrictions on liberties 

In Cambodia, criticism of the prime minister and government has often led to reprisals. Free expression has been hampered in recent years on many occasions. In 2020, the government enacted legislation that gave Hun Sen the power to declare a state of emergency giving authorities broad powers to conduct digital surveillance, ban assemblies, and ban or limit broadcasting, among other provisions that amounted to virtually unchecked powers. Many human rights groups condemned the law for restricting people’s basic rights such as the right to peaceful assembly.  

For Long Kunthea, an environmental activist, the reality is similarly gloomy. “I still have to go to the police station once a month as required by the court,” she says, commenting on the unwillingness of the court to make a judgment on the trumped charges of conspiracy. “It affects my rights and freedom,” she adds.  

Looking back, most of the transitions from authoritarian rule toward democracy were extended processes rather than single events. It remains to be seen how Cambodia’s opposition will play the game against its seemingly almighty opponent. While democratic transformations come from within the country, the external partners should not, however. look away when human rights are violated.  

As George Washington said, “Liberty, when it begins to take root, is a plant of rapid growth.” 

- Asia Media Centre