Cambodia’s election commission disqualified the Candlelight Party, considered the country’s only effective opposition party, on May 15. The move came ahead of general elections set for July 23.
The Candlelight Party said it would appeal the commission’s decision to the constitutional court.
The refusal to register the Candlelight Party fits into the government’s broader campaign to throttle the political opposition ahead of the July general elections.
Analysts widely believe Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has ruled Cambodia for 38 years, will pass the torch to his son Hun Manet, who heads Cambodia’s army.
But regime-friendly analysts are trying to paint Cambodia’s clear democratic backslide as a step in Cambodia’s democratic development.
“It is important to acknowledge that Cambodia’s electoral process is still in its early stages of development,” Seun Sam, a policy analyst with the Royal Academy of Cambodia, wrote in the pro-government Khmer Times.
The government is striving to ensure a “fair and transparent election processes,” he said.
“The country’s democratic system, which continues to evolve and solidify as the government and people of Cambodia strive to ensure fair and transparent election processes, should be recognized and respected for its considerable successes.”
That is false.
Rather than evolving and solidifying Cambodia’s democratic system, Hun Sen and his government have been dismantling it to maintain the prime minister’s decades-long grip on power.
In late 2017, before the 2018 general elections, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the oppositional Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), paving the way for Hun Sen to run virtually unopposed.
Reuters described the Candlelight Party as “a reincarnation” of CNRP.
Formed in 1995, it was inactive from 2012 and returned to politics only in October 2021.
The Cambodia election commission disqualified Candlelight Party from participating in the upcoming election citing the party’s failure to submit the necessary registration documents.
But the Asian Network for Free Elections said the original party registration certificate was lost during police raids on the CNRP’s headquarters in 2017.
“The fact that the party was allowed to run in the 2022 Commune and Sangkat Council Elections exposes the arbitrary and politically motivated nature of this disqualification,” the Bangkok-based group said.
In October 2022, Hun Sen threatened to dissolve any political party associated with Sam Rainsy, CNRP’s co-founder.
In January, Hun Sen threatened physical violence and lawsuits against opposition members who criticized his ruling party or government.
“There are only two options: One is to use legal means and the other is to use a stick. Which of these two do you prefer?” Hun Sen said.
Candlelight Party officials and activists have faced both.
In January, a Candlelight Party vice president, Thach Setha, was arrested in an alleged check-bouncing case.
That same month, Cambodia’s Foreign Ministry filed a $1 million lawsuit against Candlelight Party adviser Kong Korm, alleging he fraudulently acquired the land title for his house.
That lawsuit was dropped after Hun Sen demanded that Kong Korm turn the land over to the state, which he did.
In February, Cambodia’s Supreme Court upheld a conviction against Son Chhay, another vice president of the Candlelight Party.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party and the National Election Commission filed a defamation suit against Son Chhay for claiming that Cambodia’s June 5, 2022, communal elections were not entirely above board.
He was ordered to pay more than $1 million in damages.
In March and April, several Candlelight Party members faced arrest and imprisonment for allegedly forging documents that would have allowed another oppositional party, the now defunct Cambodia National Heart Party, to run in last June’s local elections.
Candlelight Party Secretary General Ly Sothearayuth said three jailed Candlelight Party leaders played “a key role in the party” and were “active in mobilizing youth and networking.”
The Candlelight Party members also faced harassment and assault.
In April, Candlelight Party youth movement leader Thorn Chantha was attacked with a baton. Youth movement member Keat Sokchan told Radio Free Asia, a U.S.-funded, VOA sister news service, that he was beaten with a steel baton a couple days later.
Party officials allege there have been dozens of such "politically motivated" attacks in recent years, with no perpetrators arrested or charged.
In March, Cambodian court found former CNRP leader Kem Sokha guilty of treason and sentenced him to 27 years in prison.
The United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention said that Kem Sokha’s prosecution had “clearly resulted from the exercise of his right to take part in the government of his country.”
Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017, roughly two months before Cambodia’s top court dissolved the CNRP. Charles Santiago, chairman of the advocacy group ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights, called the CNRP’s dissolution "the final nail in the coffin for Cambodian democracy.”
Mass trials followed, with 36 activists and opposition lawmakers convicted in December 2022 of conspiracy to commit treason.
CNRP officials and activists regularly faced assaults, with some left hospitalized.