After the dissolution of Cambodia’s only viable opposition party, the upcoming July elections seem to be little more than a formality. What’s really at stake, though, is not the ruling party’s continued hold on the country, but the legitimacy of its power.
The 14 May deadline for registering parties passed with a whimper. After giving itself an extra week, the National Election Committee has approved 18 out of 20 applicants so far. Prime Minister Hun Sen has expressed the hope that the others will subsequently be accepted; the marked increase in options from the previous three elections reflects his apparent belief that more parties equals more democracy.
Notable participants include the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the once-powerful royalist party FUNCINPEC, the litigious Cambodian Youth Party, and the liberal Grassroots Democracy Party. None of the parties on the ballot other than the CPP received more than 2% of the vote in last year’s communal elections.
Glaringly absent is the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which received nearly half of the popular vote and was seen as the only real challenger to the ruling party. After the CNRP’s strong performance, party president Kem Sokha was arrested on internationally condemned charges of treason. Two months after that, the entire party was forcibly dissolved for allegedly conspiring with the United States to seize power in Cambodia; most commentators believe the show of support for the party was the true reason for its disbarment.
The removal of the CNRP from the scene—coupled with the crippling of an independent press in Cambodia—has paved the way for Hun Sen’s party to triumph at the ballot box, but it’s not just about winning.
Beneficiaries of CNRP’s dissolution
The establishment appears to believe that the robustness of Cambodia’s democracy is directly proportional to the number of political parties contesting the election. But for many of these parties, which CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy has described as body-less ghosts, questions abound as to their independence.
Take FUNCINPEC, for instance: the royalist party actually won the first elections organised by the United Nations in 1993, but has since steadily slid towards irrelevancy. FUNCINPEC filed the initial complaint to dissolve the CNRP, and was the primary beneficiary of its dissolution, promptings fears of a backroom political deal.
Before the CNRP was dissolved, the CPP rammed through a series of amendments allowing a party’s elected positions to be redistributed in the event of its banishment. The CNRP’s National Assembly seats were therefore allocated to minor parties based on the percentage of the vote received in the 2013 national election. FUNCINPEC was the best of the rest with a meagre 3.6% of the vote, granting it 41 of the 55 newly vacated seats. The Cambodia Nationality Party and Khmer Economic Development Party accepted two and one seat respectively.
Nheb Bun Chhin, spokesman for FUNCINPEC and a parliamentary candidate in Battambang Province, admits that his party is struggling financially, but denies that a lack of funding is an indicator that the party lacks support.
According to Bun Chhin, the reason for FUNCINPEC’s poor performance in last year’s commune election was because the current party president and half-brother of Cambodia’s current monarch, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, had not been in charge. Ranariddh, Bun Chhin says, is a “real actor” with a better “image” than his predecessor.
However, many believe Ranariddh’s image has been tarnished by his re-emergence into the political arena; he’d announced twice in the last decade that he was retiring from politics, only to return once more. He was re-elected as FUNCINPEC’s president in 2015—almost ten years after he’d been ousted from the position in 2006—and returned to the country’s National Assembly in 2017 following the dissolution of the CNRP.
It’s a point of view that Bun Chhin shrugs off. He said FUNCINPEC only complied with the law by accepting the redistributed seats, and claims Prince Ranariddh is the true protector of human rights. “We just follow whatever they said,” he says. “[Ranariddh] himself brought human rights, brought everything to Cambodia.”
The Cambodian Youth Party (CYP) and Cambodian Nationality Party (CNP) also supported the CNRP’s dissolution. CYP President Pich Sros has a history of harassing the former party, filing a lawsuit against Kem Sokha after he urged Cambodians not to “waste” votes on minor parties.
Sros also filed a complaint against a trio of high-profile Cambodian activists for allegedly misappropriating funds raised for the funeral of assassinated political analyst Kem Ley. Ley’s widow rejected the accusations, but Sros claimed to have inside information from Ley’s brother Kem Rithisith, who tacitly supported the complaint.
Rithisith then went on to found the Khmer United Party. He claimed that he was trying to continue his late brother’s “legacy”, and had originally named it the Kem Ley Party; his sister-in-law, though, called it an attack on her husband’s reputation.
Kem Ley’s party
Ley himself had actually co-founded the Grassroots Democracy Party (GDP), now widely seen as one of the only true independent parties participating in the upcoming election. Led by European-educated agriculturists, the GDP is arguably the only party that prefers to focus on policy over personality.
When asked, Secretary-General Sam Inn declines to comment on whether the other minor parties are affiliates of the ruling party, saying that GDP’s “code of conduct” prohibits attacking others.
“We are highly committed to providing a new alternative with hope and inspiration”
Instead, Inn stressed the importance of GDP’s 125-point plan to achieve national reconciliation, development, national defence, and international cooperation.
“In Cambodian politics so far, none of the existing parties, or the dissolved party, have a clear policy and how to solve social problems,” he says, adding that most parties simply seek to gain popularity through unproductive personal attacks, xenophobic anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, and threats.
“We are highly committed to providing a new alternative with hope and inspiration,” Inn says.
Boycotting the vote
The Khmer Will Party—founded by Kong Monika, the son of a high-ranking CNRP official—has attempted to position itself as a replacement for the CNRP, a move rejected by most CNRP party officials. Rainsy has suggested that Monika was threatened or otherwise coerced into creating the party. Instead, the CNRP came together to call for a widespread boycott.
“The largest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), represents the will of nearly half of the national population, but was not allowed to register and is blocked from participating,” reads a statement released 14 May, the final day of party registration.
The statement called the upcoming poll a “sham election” and “the death for democracy in Cambodia”. It also called for the international community to refuse to recognise the eventual results, and urged Japan to withdraw its funding of the election. While both the United States and the European Union withdrew their support following CNRP’s dissolution, Japan has donated over 10,000 ballot boxes and pledged millions of dollars’ worth of support.
The statement called the upcoming poll a “sham election” and “the death for democracy in Cambodia”
The country’s two most prominent independent election monitors, Nicfec and Comfrel, have both said they won’t be observing the election at all. Nicfec cited a lack of volunteers due to a climate of fear.
The National Election Committee—a once neutral body now made up of mostly ruling party affiliates—has grown increasingly insecure in its role as election guardian. The body has lashed out at any critics suggesting that voter turnout might suffer from the exclusion of a party with over three million supporters. The committee has threatened legal action against opposition politicians, journalists and election watchdogs.
Voters and abstainers
Rather than a competition between the CPP and another party, the election is shaping up to be a competition between voters and abstainers. With the CPP all-but-guaranteed a win, it is voter turnout that counts. As Cambodian political analyst Meas Nee points out, the CPP’s concern is no longer winning the election, but maintaining legitimacy and “minimum recognition” from the international community.
Following the CNRP’s call for a boycott, the Cambodian government has responded by accusing Rainsy of violating the constitution and election laws. Pro-government social media activists have added frames encouraging voting to their Facebook profile photos. While the Malaysian grassroots effort to get people to the ballot box earlier this month was perceived as working against the incumbent, in Cambodia it’s the ruling party themselves who are trying to get out the vote.
Government officials have acknowledged that citizens have the right to abstain, but some have issued thinly veiled threats. CPP member Ieng Moly warned that it would be easy to identify boycotters simply by looking out for people without the stain of indelible ink on their fingers. He said that such people would be recognised as supporters of the “treasonous rebel group”.
Government officials have acknowledged that citizens have the right to abstain, but some have issued thinly veiled threats
It’s all a little topsy-turvy; Nee says the ruling party has now found itself in the bizarre position of “nurturing” competitors and convincing their supporters to vote. Hun Sen has even, on multiple occasions, ordered local officials to facilitate registration and advertising for other parties.
Yet the emergence of these parties have raised suspicions. According to Nee, the preponderance of small parties that “came from nothing” is peculiar. He also points out that Khmer National Unity Party leader Nhek Bun Chhay was conveniently pardoned just in time to lead his withering party into the coming elections. A former government advisor, Bun Chhay was arrested in 2017 over a 10-year-old drug case. Mom Sonando, president of the Beehive Social Democratic Party, also returned to the political stage in similarly abrupt fashion. Sentenced to 20 years’ imprisonment for secession and incitement in 2012, Sonando’s sentence was reduced to five years and suspended in the face of international outcry. Despite resigning as Beehive Party leader, Hun Sen personally encouraged him to rejoin the party for the upcoming election.
Plenty of “questions” also remain about the Khmer Will Party, Nee says, claiming that it serves the ruling party’s interests “even if it’s not a direct puppet”.
Seeking legitimacy for a “nothingburger”?
The US State Department issued a statement the day party registration closed, condemning the continued exclusion of the CNRP, and hinting that recognition is in jeopardy.
“This decision prevents millions of Cambodian voters from exercising their democratic right to vote for candidates of their choice and calls into question the integrity of the electoral process,” the statement reads.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan, however, says the regime is not concerned with the international community’s opinion.
“Legitimacy does not belong to anyone. Legitimacy belongs to the people,” he says. “There’s not any law that points out that there has to be this kind of number turnout to vote to keep legitimacy.” He went on to incorrectly claim that the US has “twenty or thirty percent” voter turnout.
“They think they’re buying legitimacy, but legitimacy’s not for sale”
Ear Sophal, associate professor of Diplomacy and World Affairs at Occidental College, says that legitimacy is no longer on the table for the CPP. Elections, he argues, are the culmination of a democratic process, not democracy itself, and Cambodia has no democratic characteristics aside from a “fake” election. Although he can’t say for sure if the minor parties with no history or supporters were puppets, but he doesn’t see them as credible competitors.
Like Nee, Sophal sees the sudden pardons of Nhek Bun Chhay and Mom Sonando as suspicious. “It all smells of Russian kompromat—but it’s sad to see that happen to someone who inspired me as much as Mom Sonando. The guy was a bouncer at a strip club back in France. What compromising material can possibly bring him down?” he says.
Hun Sen will be seeking a result that he can claim as his mandate, but in Sophal’s eyes, the election is a “nothingburger” and “theatre of the absurd”.
“They think they’re buying legitimacy, but legitimacy’s not for sale,” he adds.
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Andrew Nachemson is a Cambodia-based reporter covering politics and human rights. Formerly with the Phnom Penh Post, he resigned during a mass staff exodus following the paper’s sale to a Malaysian investor with ties to the Cambodian government. His article on the lingering effects of Agent Orange in Cambodia won the 2018 Society of Publishers in Asia award for Excellence in Human Rights Reporting.