Cambodia heads towards one-party state – and a democratic crisis

A democrat? Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen casts his ballot during local council elections, June 2017. EPA Images

Imagine a “democratic” election with only one main party? Most countries purporting to be democracies have two or three large parties which contest elections. Power may rotate between them or be held by coalitions. There is a choice for voters, despite potential debate over the attractiveness of that choice.

But 24 years after Cambodia’s first modern era elections, the country is on the brink of becoming a one-party state. The UN Transitional Authority in Cambodia (UNTAC) administered elections in May 1993 when 20 parties vied for seats in parliament. The election was conducted in accordance with a new constitution and Cambodia was on its way to becoming a multiparty liberal democracy.

An elderly woman weeps in front of the skulls at the Khmer Rouge killing fields of Cheung Ek. EPA Images

Following the horrific genocide of the Khmer Rouge regime and years of civil war, the new Cambodia was founded on principles agreed in the Paris Peace Agreements on a Comprehensive Political Settlement of the Cambodian Conflict. Article 1 of the constitution proclaims:

Cambodia is a kingdom in which the king shall rule according to the constitution and the principles of liberal multiparty democracy.

A brief election history

National elections have been held every five years since 1993 – in 1998, 2003, 2008 and 2013 – by which members of the National Assembly are directly elected. The Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) dominates, though ruled in a coalition from 1993-97 with the United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Cooperative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), which ended in the 1997 “coup”, and again in 2003 in a temporary coalition with FUNCINPEC. The date for the next National Assembly election has been set as July 29, 2018.

But the CPP, led by prime minister Hun Sen, has repeatedly made clear they are not intending to cede power. The prime minister himself warned in May 2017 that the CPP must win to ensure peace and stability and avoid the country returning to civil war.

The threat of a return to civil war is frequently invoked as are threats against anyone contesting the local or national elections. It is clear that the mass protests which followed the 2013 elections will not be tolerated. Samdech Tea Banh, deputy prime minister and defence minister, warned in May that he would smash the teeth of anyone protesting after the commune/sangkat elections earlier this year.

Social affairs minister, Vong Sauth, was reported in the Phnom Penh Post newspaper as commenting in a speech on July 31 that the government would hit people with bamboo rods if they protested after the national election – a horrific technique employed during the Khmer Rouge era.

Such threats and intimidation led many commentators and observers to question whether free and fair elections are possible. The 32-year rule of Hun Sen has been a period of relative peace and stability, but in a multiparty democracy, opposition parties can and should challenge the government and the electorate should be offered a free vote on a choice of candidates standing for election.

Rule by law, not rule of law

As Cambodia moves towards rule by law, rather than governance in accordance with the rule of law, legislation was amended in March to preclude a political party being led by anyone with a criminal conviction and to enable the government to unilaterally suspend the activities of, or formally initiate legal proceedings to dissolve, any political party engaging in activities which may destroy national unity, subvert the liberal multiparty democracy, or incite action leading to national disunity.

The amendments also prohibit political parties from accepting contributions of any kind from state or foreign institutions, NGOs and similar enterprises. A subsequent amendment in July 2017 prohibits a party from using voice messages, images, written documents or activities of a person convicted of a felony or misdemeanour or from “tacitly agreeing” with such a person to undertake such activities. The fate of the opposition legislative parties rests primarily with the executive – an extraordinary state of affairs for a proclaimed democracy and a clear threat to separation of powers albeit a court is the final arbiter of dissolution of any political party.

And the impact of these amendments is being felt. Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) billboards were hastily painted over in July to obliterate the depiction of Sam Rainsy, former CNRP President, who left office when the March amendments were being passed. With current convictions, including for defamation, he can neither lead the party nor have his image, writing or activities referenced.

Three opposition party leaders are also in prison, charged with diverse offences under the criminal code. If/when/as convicted, they can no longer lead or even be publicly affiliated with their current party.

They are the founder and then president of the Khmer Power Party, Sourn Serey Ratha, convicted and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment; Khmer National United Party president, Nhek Bun Chhay; and president of the CNRP, Kem Sokha facing charges of conspiracy with a foreign power.

Kem Sokha, president of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), shows the ink on his finger after voting during local council elections at a polling station in Phnom Penh, June 2017. EPA Images

Then, on October 6, the Cambodian Ministry of Interior, using its new powers, initiated formal legal proceedings to dissolve the CNRP. The Supreme Court issued a writ on October 9 informing the CNRP it has 20 days to prepare its defence.

Dissolution is a likely outcome and so the party with the only non CPP seats in the National Assembly will cease to exist in Cambodia. CNRP seats will be redistributed in accordance with new laws being fast tracked through parliament. Irrespective of the reallocation, any new distribution of seats will not reflect the views of voters in 2013.

A crisis of confidence

Confidence in the political and electoral system is tumbling. Almost 90% of registered voters participated in the June 4 commune elections and voter registration is currently open for newly enfranchised young people. Yet, many have not yet registered. Registration closes in a month.

Without the CNRP, it is hard to argue that Cambodia is a multi-party plural liberal democracy. The only opposition party in the National Assembly is on the brink of dissolution. The leaders of the only two opposition parties to win commune posts in June are currently detained on serious criminal charges. Almost half the CNRP members of parliament have left the country, fearing arrest.

It is true that Cambodian democracy has long followed a single party model insofar as there has been CPP dominance. Dissent and criticism are rarely countenanced. Since 2015, even NGOs and trade unions have been required by law to be politically neutral. The CNRP regularly boycotts the legislature, especially when controversial laws are being fast tracked or votes are required on lifting parliamentary immunity of its members. Criminal charges of incitement, defamation, and insurrection remain common against political activists. Bribery and forgery have been invoked frequently in the last years.

But now Cambodia is also fast running out of political opposition. The vestige of plurality has been abandoned. In the UN Human Rights Council in September 2017, when technical assistance and cooperation with Cambodia was being debated, many states raised questions as to the likelihood of a free and credible election in 2018. That is an ever more distant possibility.

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