In Cambodia, the revival of opposition to the Hun Sen regime

The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen dominated the local elections held in Cambodia on June 5, winning, according to initial counts, the vast majority of the seats of commune chiefs and councilors – and around 75% of the votes, against 22% for the “Candlelight Party”, or “Party of the Candle”, which after only a few months of existence – it was created last October – has become the main opposition force. In 2017, the regime of Prime Minister Hun Sen, 69, the strong man of the country, in power since 1985, dissolved the formation of his main competitor at the time and arrested hundreds of opponents and activists.

While the opposition has admitted defeat, it also denounces the CPP’s persistent control over all institutions, in particular the National Elections Committee, which is supposed to be independent. Candlelight Party Vice President Thach Setha told the World that “these elections were less free and less fair than five years ago, even if there was no violence, because there were forms of intimidation in many places”. He takes as an example the fact that, “in each polling station, voters had to vote in the presence of PPC officials, who registered the names”. The PPC has the advantage of being very well established, and for a long time, in rural areas.

Lack of transparency of the denounced ballot

The Candlelight Party is the only opposition party to have presented candidates in almost all of the 1,652 municipalities out of the 15 other small parties taking part in the elections. But it is far from the score obtained by its predecessor, the National Rescue Party of Cambodia (PSNC), in the local elections of 2017: it then won a third of the seats and 44% of the votes, a sign that the CPP was seriously losing speed. It was dissolved by the Supreme Court a few months after the election on the grounds that it was conspiring to “overthrow the government” and its president, Kem Sokha, arrested for treason – his trial is still ongoing. Without credible opposition, the CPP won all the seats in the 2018 legislative elections, giving Hun Sen’s regime the air of a one-party regime. Because, despite the dominant position of the CPP, the strong man of Cambodia had to deal for years with the opposition and govern in coalition.

Read also: In Cambodia, the opposition prohibited

The Candlelight Party is the reincarnation of the party of Sam Rainsy, the long-term opponent, several times condemned and then pardoned, today in exile in Paris. Architect of the opposition union which gave birth to the PSNC in 2012, after the merger of his party and that of Kem Sokha, Mr. Rainsy, 73, was sentenced in absentia for conspiracy to twenty-five years in prison, in March 2021. If he gives moral support to the Candlelight Party, he rejects any active involvement: a law exposes to dissolution any party linked to a person who has been convicted. While denouncing the lack of transparency and fairness of the ballot, Sam Rainsy rejoiced on Twitter that “every seat won is one seat less for the autocratic regime of Hun Sen”.

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In Cambodia, the revival of opposition to the Hun Sen regime

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