A total of 17 political parties have registered to contest the June communal elections, an important indicator of the July 2023 national elections. The three-day registration period, which ended on Monday, saw tens of thousands of candidates registering to compete. 11,622 council positions and the management of 1,652 municipalities.
Elections in communes, the administrative division above the village level, are the most important local ballots in Cambodia, as commune councilors periodically elect members of district, provincial and municipal councils, as well as most members of the Senate. Voice of Democracy (VOD), a local media outlet, has a good breakdown of participating parties here.
Admittedly, only one party out of the 17 has a realistic chance: it is the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, which has governed the country in various forms since 1979. It is the single party to lead candidates in each commune, and as noted by VOD, “stands for election with full control over all but one commune in [the] the country.”
Over the past five years (and to some extent much longer), the CPP has also worked assiduously to prevent the emergence of any significant source of opposition. In the last communal election in June 2017, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), a merger of two popular opposition parties, managed to win 43.8% of the popular vote, roughly the proportion that he won, much to the chagrin of the CPP, at the national level. elections in 2013.
The CPP’s response was ruthless: it arrested party chairman Kem Sokha for treason, dissolved the party on similar grounds and forced most of its top leaders into exile, where the former chairman of the party, Sam Rainsy, had been alive since late 2015. The outcome was predictable: the CPP contested the 2018 national elections virtually unopposed, winning all seats in the National Assembly and bringing Cambodia back, in spirit if not in letter , to the one-party communist state that existed before 1989.
In this context, the participation of this multitude of small parties in the municipal election will effectively function as a facade or an exercise of acclamation intended to renew the grip of the CPP on the political base. Indeed, small parties have already made allegations of threats, presumably from ruling party officials, while the League for Democracy party, a minor party that won around 5% of the popular vote in the 2018 national elections, announced last week that it is boycotting the election, citing disagreements with the NEC over how to validate votes at polling stations.
Is there a chance the election will deviate from the script? Of the 17 parties, there are only a small handful that stand a chance of challenging the well-resourced and armed CPP even in a hypothetically free and fair contest, and only one that is clearly opposed to the CPP. This is the Candlelight Party (CP), the latest incarnation of the Sam Rainsy Party, which merged with Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party to form the CNRP in 2012.
CP is well positioned for several reasons. It has the second-largest number of candidates running for office: 23,367 in 1,632 of the country’s 1,652 townships, according to the National Elections Committee, or NEC; the party claims 1,649. main faction of the CNRP. Indeed, the CP is explicitly positioning itself to capture the votes that once went to the CNRP, and in a free and fair election, it would have a good chance of doing so.
By contrast, the controversial circumstances of the party’s reactivation late last year, a move that helped precipitate the collapse of the alliance between Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha that underpinned the CNRP, and the split of their respective (and highly customized) party factions. As a result, there must be a question mark over whether the PC can successfully appeal to CNRP supporters who are more aligned with Kem Sokha, who is currently on trial and will not contest the communal elections.
The next two largest parties are Funcinpec, a royalist stronghold and former powerhouse of Cambodian politics that has since fallen into oblivion, and the Khmer United National Party, an offshoot of Funcinpec now led by former general Nhek Bun Chhay. , who currently holds the only post of commune chief not occupied by the CPP. If the royalists’ faltering fortunes over the past two decades are any indication, they are unlikely to win much of the vote, despite fielding 9,055 and 8,078 candidates, respectively. Even if they do, these parties have long since abandoned any oppositional tendencies: for years, their main interest has been to muster enough popular votes to be able to take advantage of the sinecures of their senior officials within the great tree of patronage of the CPP.
As I noted last month, given the CPP’s near total control over the levers of administrative power, outside observers’ interest in the next election cycle is less about who wins than “the nature and extent trickery”. This then brings us back to the overarching question regarding the next national election, scheduled for July 2023, of which local elections are often a good indicator: whether the trial of Kem Sokha, by far the most popular opposition politician remaining in Cambodia, give way to a political settlement allowing it to participate in one form or another.