Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party is well placed to extend its rule in next year’s national elections after trouncing the competition at last week’s local commune elections.
The victory would also enable Hun Sen to hand power to his eldest son.
As expected, the CPP took advantage of a ban on the main opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party, whose supporters struggled to reorganize before the vote with hundreds of its members before the courts or in jail.
However, the Candlelight Party, which emerged from the remnants of the CNRP, established itself as Cambodia’s main opposition party, with a total of 17 political parties vying for thousands of positions in 1,652 communes -- clusters of three to 30 villages.
“The elections went the way most people were expecting, so there were certainly no surprises there,” said David Totten, managing director of Emerging Markets Consulting in Phnom Penh.
"Given the instability that there’s been regionally and internationally, there may even be some people who’d breathe a sigh of relief that Cambodia – whilst continuing on a political path that’s not acceptable in the eyes of many – at least it’s not a cause of instability or concern in the region.”
Final results will be announced by the National Election Committee on June 26, but the preliminary count shows the CPP won 72.7% of the popular vote, up from 50.76% in 2017, when the CNRP scored almost 44% of the overall vote, shortly before it was outlawed by the courts.
This year, the Candlelight Party won 21.78% of the popular vote, a long way behind the CPP and the CNRP’s previous tally, but there were mitigating circumstances.
Opposition candidates were split among a slew of new parties and the CNRP’s ever-popular former leader, Kem Sokha, did not contest the vote while remaining under house arrest amid his continuing treason trial.
Other senior opposition figures had fled abroad including co-CNRP leader Sam Rainsy.
Ou Virak, president of the Phnom Penh-based Future Forum think tank, said the Candlelight Party had performed well, given the circumstances, and that was largely due to old allegiances.
“Despite all of the government's attempts to either crack down, suppress, harass the Sam Rainsy popularity, that gets core supporters, that pool of people remain, and I think they remain very loyal to his politics and then to the politics of the opposition,” he said.
These results have an added significance because opinion polls are shunned in Cambodia and Hun Sen has backed his son, Hun Manet, as the next CPP prime minister, a move that has been endorsed by the party.
Totten said it was “far too early and far too difficult” to say whether a transition of power would go smoothly but he added, “In any system when a leader who’s been around for such a long time in a position of such obvious control, people start to anticipate his or her departure.
“That could lead to a certain degree of unfamiliar instability around political alliances,” he said, adding the government meanwhile would concentrate on reforming and repairing the damage caused to the economy by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Voter turnout was also low in what Liz Throssell, spokesperson for the United Nations human rights office in Geneva, described as a “paralyzing political environment” in a country which has witnessed a “systematic shrinking of democratic space.”
She also noted that 118 former CNRP members had been excluded from running for office for five years, while candidates were reluctant to register complaints, fearing retaliatory legal proceedings or being struck from the ballot.
Eight days after the poll, the Phnom Penh Municipal Court jailed dozens of CNRP supporters for between five to eight years, including Khmer-American lawyer Theary Seng.
Chak Sopheap, executive director of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, said the convictions and jailing had highlighted the government’s “unwillingness to allow any opposition to exist in the country.”
“As well as some form of intimidation and threats of legal action, certain candidates have been removed from the lists before the commune council election,” she said. “All of these incidents, they are not surprising because this is the similar pattern that has been used in the past.”
The dissolution of the CNRP enabled the CPP to win every seat contested in the National Assembly the following year, which resulted in the country becoming a one-party state for the first time since 1993 U.N.-sponsored elections.
Ou Virak said he expected the voting trend seen at this year’s commune election to be repeated at the national ballot in July next year. Mergers with smaller parties are possible but it is unlikely the Candlelight Party could recapture more than 40% of the popular vote, as the CNRP did, he said.
“I think that will be seen as too much of a risk to accept for the ruling party. I think, looking back again, they dissolved the CNRP easily,” he said. “They can do that again if there’s any real threat to their victory.”