Spotlight - Cambodia: May 9, 2022

Cambodia’s last two elections came and went without much fanfare. With Cambodia having outlawed the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in 2017, it was no surprise that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) galloped to victory in the most recent elections, claiming every National Assembly and Senate seat in 2018.
 
But with local commune elections set to take place on June 5, a new force has emerged on the scene. Well, at least a newish force: the Candlelight Party (CP).
 
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy founded the CP in 1995 as the Khmer Nation Party, which became the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) in 1998. The SRP contested commune and senate elections through 2012, after which Rainsy joined with Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party to form the CNRP.
 
The CNRP surged in 2013, securing 44.46 percent of the popular vote in general elections that were neither free nor fair. Thousands protested the results in Phnom Penh, disputing Hun Sen’s claimed victory. The CNRP again contested Hun Sen and the CPP in 2017, securing 43.83 percent of the vote in elections that, again, were neither free nor fair. In response to these successes—and ahead of the 2018 elections—the Cambodian government outlawed the CNRP.
 
Rainsy is now in exile. Sokha remains in Cambodia, but he is banned from leaving or engaging in politics, and is still on trial for treason.
 
With these two largely sidelined, the CP is now the opposition’s next best hope. But it is not the only hope, as former CNRP lawmakers have created several other small parties. Nonetheless, top CP official Thach Setha believes the CP will perform well, given its predecessors’ name recognition. CP Secretary-General Lee Sothearayuth remains optimistic, too, saying in early May: “In 2017, the CNRP received more than three million votes or more than 40 percent, and I think in this election the Candlelight Party will get more votes.” To its credit, the CP has demonstrated some surprising political skill already, having managed to field candidates for nearly every contested seat in the country’s 1,652 local communes.
 
And while the CPP remains a well-funded political machine with enough popularity to actually win certain seats, the government is evidently spooked by the CP. Authorities have moved against the party accordingly, hitting CP candidates with politically-motivated lawsuits, intimidating others, trying to bribe some, and most brazenly, simply pulling nearly 100 of them from the ballot.
 
Citing this harassment, Setha has said that the CP may boycott the election. This may be something of a self-preservation effort; rather than contest the election and risk government retribution, the CP may prefer to live to fight another day. And even if the CP does opt to compete, it is hard to imagine them performing particularly well, given just how substantially the government has stacked the odds against any opposition.
 
But the CPP’s heavy-handed response to the CP has betrayed the ruling party’s evident concern about people’s waning patience with Hun Sen and the status quo. So, while the Candlelight Party may not control Cambodia any time soon, its flames could serve to rekindle the Cambodian people’s spirit of opposition—which no government has ever fully managed to snuff out.
 
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.
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Charles Dunst

Charles Dunst

Former Adjunct Fellow (Non-resident), Southeast Asia Program