Cambodian opposition rises from the ashes ahead of local elections
PHNOM PENH, June 1 (Reuters) – Speaking from the back of a van adorned with campaign posters and loudspeakers, veteran politician Son Chhay is determined to convince voters that democracy in Cambodia is not is not dead.
Along with the newly created Candlelight Party, he and other activists are running in the upcoming local elections, hoping to resurrect political opposition to what has become a one-party state under Prime Minister Hun Sen.
The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has in recent years sought to crush dissent by jailing more than 100 opposition members for treason, sparking international criticism of Hun Sen, who has been in power for 37 years.
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“A victory for the Candlelight Party is a victory for all Cambodians,” Son Chhay, the party’s vice-president, told cheering crowds gathering recently on the outskirts of the capital, Phnom Penh, as campaigning got under way for the elections. national municipal elections in June. 5.
But the CPP, which controls the vast majority of the 1,652 communes, maintains a grip on the political landscape that analysts say the fledgling opposition party is unlikely to relax given the intimidation and legal and bureaucratic battles it faces. is confronted.
Sok Eysan, a spokesman for the ruling CPP party, dismissed as insubstantial any competition launched by the opposition camp alone, calling it “a piece of broken glass”.
The Candlelight Party, although it’s only been around for six months, isn’t exactly new.
Its leadership is populated by former members of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), an opposition party that the Supreme Court dissolved in 2017 as part of a broader crackdown on critics of Hun Sen.
The ban came just after the CNRP won 40% of the communes in the last local elections, and all of its estates were handed over to the ruling party, the CPP, giving it near total control.
CNRP co-founder Sam Rainsy, a former finance minister in exile in France, helped rebrand the opposition as the Candlelight Party with Son Chhay serving as its vice-president.
The party appealed to young and low-income voters by promising universal health care, equal access to education, and a crackdown on drugs and crime.
“The Candlelight Party will not allow any development that brings people to tears. We will not allow anyone to steal people’s land,” Son Chhay told supporters at the rally outside Phnom Penh, citing shared concern. by many Cambodians regarding forced evictions. in the hands of real estate, mining or agricultural companies.
The party’s total membership is unclear, but it is fielding candidates in 90% of the 1,652 townships and “hopes to win a lot of them”, said general secretary Lee Sothearayuth.
The legacy of the party’s old infrastructure and its supporters makes it the only opposition party that poses a realistic threat to the CPP, said Sebastian Strangio, journalist and author of the book “The Cambodia of Hun Sen”.
“However, it is unlikely to do so this year. For the CPP, political survival comes first, and the moment the Candlelight Party poses a serious threat to Hun Sen’s camp will be the moment that this party too, find themselves banished or forced into submission,” he said.
Already the Candlelight Party has felt the heat. The Interior Ministry said Son Chhay’s appointment as a party MP was illegal and at least 24 complaints were filed accusing the party of falsifying candidates’ documents.
Son Chhay says the charges are politically motivated and in fact the candle contestants faced bureaucratic hurdles even to register for the elections.
“We see it as bullying, they like to use the courts to bully us,” he said.
The CPP called the complaint “baseless” and defended its practice of handing out cash and gifts to voters ahead of elections.
“If true, competing political parties can file complaints with the National Electoral Commission. However, there have been no complaints,” CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said.
A disagreement within the opposition over tactics further undermines Candlelight’s efforts. Once-friendly politicians like influential former CNRP leader Kem Sokha say the new party should not take part in what some see as a compromised election.
“The Candlelight Party is playing into Hun Sen’s hands,” said Kem Sokha’s daughter, Kem Monovithya.
Many see the communal elections as an indicator of the general elections next year and the ruling party is expected to win most of the communes next week.
Despite the obstacles, the Candlelight Party is aiming at the very least to put the opposition candidates back in the public eye, hoping that any support now will translate into national success next year.
“Because people have lost their representation for almost five years, they’re struggling, they’re hurting. So this is the chance they have to go out and find their representatives.”
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Written by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Robert Birsel
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