The breakdown of Cambodia’s National Rescue Party

Photo: CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Prime Minister Hun Sen dissolved CNRP. Without any viable opposition soon, Cambodia’s democracy may be a farce.

By Azira Mohamed

The Cambodian Supreme Court dissolved Cambodia’s National Rescue Party (CNRP) in October 2017 for treason to the state. Prime Minister Hun Sen accused CNRP leader, Kem Sokha, of colluding with the US. Hun Sen claimed that Sokha allied with the US to overthrow the Cambodian government.

The timing of the dissolution close to the 2018 elections is opportunistic. It is a signal of PM Hun Sen trying to consolidate his power while he has the political upper hand. The CNRP had unprecedented support in the 2013 elections. It would put up a tough challenge to the incumbent Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the 2018 elections.

Hun Sen’s political engineering before 2018 elections

Hun Sen’s clampdown on the CNRP is a drastic shift from cordial relations between his CPP and the CNRP. The two parties worked on a “culture of dialogue” after the contested 2013 elections. Both parties agreed to negotiate and cooperate on political matters. Under the dialogue agreement, the CPP reformed the National Election Committee. It also gave commissions to CNRP members in the National Assembly. The CPP’s efforts to negotiate with the opposition gave legitimacy to its long reign.

Hun Sen’s sudden aggression highlights his insecurity leading up to the elections. His clampdown on the CNRP left the party leaderless before its eventual dissolution.

CNRP’s co-founder, Sam Rainsy, fled the country in 2016. Hun Sen sued him for defamation. Rainsy had earlier accused him of orchestrating political activist Kem Ley’s death. Evidence showing Sokha’s connection to the US dated to 2013. Hun Sen’s treason accusation only surfaced closer to scheduled elections.

The timing of the court case nearing elections is telling of Hun Sen’s political motives. He seeks to neutralize the growing threat from his political opponents. He has also called for the closure of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights (CCHR). He claimed that the CCHR was working for US interests.

Hun Sen had earlier invited CNRP members to defect to the CPP. He reverted his decision and finally banned a total of 118 CNRP members from politics for five years. Co-optation and repression are both typical of an authoritarian regime. Hun Sen adopted both tactics to control political contest before the elections.

The court case was also biased towards Hun Sen’s favour from the start. The ruling judge for the court case was a member of the CPP. Hun Sen has held power since 1985 as Cambodia’s first and sole prime minister. His position gives him unprecedented influence over the state apparatus. The state apparatus and military are both intertwined with Hun Sen and the CPP.

The CNRP chose to attend the court hearing unrepresented. This move is no surprise as Hun Sen predetermined the court decision.

What this means for Cambodia’s political party system

Source: The Committee for Free and Fair Elections Cambodia (COMFREL)

The CNRP’s dissolve means that Hun Sen’s CPP will stand uncontested in the upcoming elections. Cambodia was a two-party system between the CPP and CNRP. Hun Sen reassured Cambodians that other parties would take CNRP seats in parliament. CNRP seats would be distributed among five parties. The CNRP captured 44% of the popular vote in the 2013 elections. Funcinpec, the next runner-up party, only took 3.7% of the vote. Dispersing these seats would not translate to a better opposition voice in parliament. Opposition parties in Cambodia are fractured and do not mobilise the popular support.

Small political parties have been sprouting in Cambodia since 2015. The Khmer Power Party and the Cambodian Youth Party are some examples. These smaller parties hardly pose a challenge to the incumbent CPP. They only work to dilute the opposition vote further.

Cambodia is a nominally democratic state. It was substantively a two-party system between the CPP and CNRP. But without the CNRP, the upcoming elections is a CPP walkover. Cambodia’s opposition remains fragmented and weak without the CNRP. The absence of the CNRP would then signal Cambodia’s return to a single party system.

What is the future of CNRP?

Monovithya Kem is working with the international community to overturn the court decision. As the daughter of CNRP founder Kem Sokha, she represents hope for new leadership in the party.

Kem believes “targeted individual sanctions” will help reverse the CNRP’s dissolution. The US stopped US$1.8 million of election funds to Cambodia. The EU may also withdraw Cambodian preferential access to EU Markets. Respect for human rights is one of the EU’s pre-requisites for access to its markets.

Despite Western criticism, China has been a strong ally supporting Hun Sen’s decision. Geng Shuang, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said “China supports the Cambodian government’s efforts to protect national security and stability.” Chinese backing buffers Hun Sen from international pressures. Both CNRP’s founders are serving prison sentences. Given this situation, the party is unlikely to make a comeback anytime soon.