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Cambodia’s ‘Democratic Credentials’ at Stake in Local Elections

FILE - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers a speech in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 21, 2022.
FILE - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen delivers a speech in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, March 21, 2022.

Cambodia’s June 5 local elections are expected to be fought on economic and environmental issues, but analysts told VOA the polls will provide an all-important litmus test for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s autocratic style of government.

They said his long-ruling Cambodia People’s Party was expected to trounce the competition, given the 2017 dissolution of the Cambodian National Rescue Party, which had come close to capturing the popular vote in previous polls.

A further crackdown on CNRP supporters over the last two years has left opposition politicians in disarray and scrambling to rebuild. Some supporters claim they have been beaten, one was knifed to death in November, and complaints have been lodged with the National Election Committee.

Ou Virak, president of the Future Forum think tank, told VOA this poll could provide a referendum for CPP rule while testing the mood of voters in a post-CNRP environment.

“The main issue in the next local election is the election itself. The main issue is actually whether the election can take place, whether the elections can be considered – more importantly in the eyes of the Cambodian people – whether they could be considered to be free and fair,” he said.

“And whether they could be conducted in a way that other opposition, main opposition figures and leaders could take part, I think that’s going to the biggest thing.

More than 82,700 candidates from 17 parties will contest the elections.

The CPP is fielding candidates in all 11,662 council seats in 1,652 communes – clusters of three to 30 villages. The Candlelight Party, formed from the remnants of the CNRP, has emerged as the main challenger and is expected to contest all but three communes.

Ou Virak said the remaining 15 political parties do not enjoy the popularity or the credibility with the public to pose a serious political threat to CPP dominance at the grassroots level.

“The Candlelight Party will be the main party to watch out for because that’s the reincarnation of the Sam Rainsy Party,” he said, referring to exiled CNRP leader Sam Rainsy, who faces lengthy jail terms if he returns to Cambodia.

The Sam Rainsy Party merged with the Human Rights Party led by Kem Sokha in 2012 to form the CNRP. Kem Sokha is currently under house arrest amid his continuing treason trial.

Grassroots issues, analysts said, include rising living costs, post-pandemic economic recovery and the plight of the Mekong River, where fishermen have suffered a dramatic drop in fish catches that has been blamed on climate change, dam construction, illegal fishing and a three-year drought.

One analyst, who refused to be named, told VOA the all-important price of rice had remained stable, but significant cost hikes for wheat, sorghum, corn, barley, fuel, cooking oil and palm oil had taken a toll on Cambodia’s poor.

“Ultimately the two primary issues here are going to be the question of COVID recovery and environmental protection,” said Bradley Murg, distinguished senior research fellow with the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace.

“On the first there’s the issue of returning to a certain level of economic normalcy and recovering to the level of development that Cambodia had before COVID hit.

“At the same time Cambodia continues to confront serious drought challenges as well as serious challenges related to the Tonle Sap river. These are much more likely to be more of a focal point to rural areas as well as also among the urban middle class,” Murg said.

His sentiments were echoed by Abby Seiff, author of the recently released book Troubling the Water: A Dying Lake and a Vanishing World in Cambodia.

“From a local perspective the fishers who rely on the Mekong have seen worsening year after worsening year. You’d really hope that this is an issue that local officials take up and pass up to the national level which is where things really need to be done.

“But there are things that local officials could be doing so I could imagine this being something where they need to appeal to their constituents,” she said.

Russia’s invasion of the Ukraine has been blamed for raising the global costs of fuel and agricultural produce while the Cambodian economy has also been punished by a scaling back of Chinese investment and an absence of foreign tourists because of the pandemic.

Officials say the pandemic will also cost about 6 million jobs in the informal economy, which analysts say accounts for about 80% of Cambodia’s GDP, drawn from a population of 16.5 million people.

According to the Planning Ministry, Cambodia’s poverty rate leaped to almost 18% during the pandemic from about 13%.

Ou Virak also said inflation and the post-COVID-19 economic recovery will have an impact on voter intentions, particularly in the poorer rural areas.

“In the country, economic recovery is not going quite as well as one would hope or not as quickly as one hoped. So a lot of these things will play out.

“But I think in the eyes of the Cambodian people, in the minds of the Cambodian people it could be seen as basically a referendum on the ruling party,” he said.

The Finance Ministry has allocated about $1.2 billion to bolster the economy and the government has also established a $200 million reserve fund, its first, to directly help the poor.

“These are going to be issues that in my view would be central, fundamentally, to the upcoming commune elections,” Murg said, adding the commune elections would also provide a bellwether for next year’s national poll.