Cambodia’s June 5 commune elections came and went without much in the way of surprises.
As expected, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) claimed a decisive victory in elections marked by voter intimidation
and irregularities. The CPP took about 73 percent of the popular vote, claiming all but four
of the 1,652 races for commune chief and 80 percent of those for commune councilor, according to the preliminary results.
CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan said
his party won because it had “served the people well.” More realistically, the CPP did so well because it has over the last half-decade outlawed the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), barred several opposition leaders from participating, intimidated others into silence or exile, and simply cheated
on election day.
The fact that voter turnout was only around 77.91 percent—the lowest in several election cycles, according
to opposition members—speaks to the resignation with which Cambodians now approach politics. “Voters were not really excited with the election,” said
one former CNRP lawmaker. “They seemed to come unhappily.”
Yet despite the CPP’s sweeping victory, another opposition party did
emerge and make some very limited gains. The Candlelight Party (CP), formed in the CNRP’s embers, managed to win around 18 percent of the commune councilor elections. But the CP won only four of the races for commune chief, which is the more powerful position.
It seems that these meager gains are the most the CPP is willing to allow, even as the government tries to convince at least some observers of Cambodian democracy’s viability. Phnom Penh understands that another Potemkin election—in which the CPP wins every
seat, as in 2018—would open Cambodia up to further criticism, allowing Western publications to again declare the country a “one-party state
.” The decision to allow the CP to win some seats, rather than zero, is clearly calculated to counteract such criticism.
But the fact that the CPP allowed them to win such a small number of seats is reflective of Phnom Penh’s paranoia. Indeed, Hun Sen seems scarred by 2013 and 2017, when the CNRP nearly bested his party in elections that the CPP tilted in its own favor. He is accordingly unwilling to allow even a limited amount of contestation or give the CP a meaningful number of seats, fearing a repeat of 2013 and 2017—or worse.
Still, the CP’s ability to field candidates across the country is not nothing, particularly ahead of next year’s general elections. And while the opposition’s limited gains do not change the fact that Hun Sen will not allow the 2023 elections to be truly competitive, the CP’s commitment and public backing is a reminder that the government cannot quell Cambodian discontent forever.
“The government has [been] in power for so long and has not made any substantial progress,” said
one garment factory worker after the election. “I want to see a change of new leaders who might make the situation better.”
Charles Dunst is an adjunct fellow (non-resident) with the Southeast Asia Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.