No opposition to Cambodia’s lack of opposition

Author: Kongkea Chhoeun, ANU

The prospect of a political equilibrium in Cambodia faded when the Cambodian Supreme Court dissolved the country’s only opposition party on 16 November. After a complaint by the Cambodian People’s Party-led government, the court disbanded the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on the grounds that the party had associated itself with criminals or had conspired with individuals against the interests of the Kingdom of Cambodia. This is after Kem Sokha, the leader of the CNRP, was arrested for treason in September.

Police officers stand guard at the Supreme Court during a hearing to decide whether to dissolve the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, 16 November 2017. (Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring).

The court also forbade hundreds of the opposition’s senior officials from participating in Cambodian politics for five years. The ruling effectively forecloses any opportunity for the CNRP to challenge the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) in the July 2018 national election. The court applied the CPP-amended Political Party Law that outlaws convicted criminals from political leadership and confers the power to dissolve any political party that threatens the state. The recently amended Election Law also allows the CNRP’s parliamentary seats to be distributed to non-CPP political parties and its local government seats to the CPP itself.

Much attention has been given to Cambodia’s ailing democracy. Many lament that democracy in the country has gone backwards, that it is on the brink of collapse or that it has outright died with key democratic institutions such as the media, civil society and now the opposition party under relentless attack.

The recent demise of Cambodia’s only opposition party begs proper explanation. External factors aside, at least three conditions internal to the Cambodian context expound the current outcome.

The first factor is that the CNRP is a credible threat to the powerbase of the CPP-led government in the 2018 national election. The CPP’s popular vote plummeted in the 2013 national election for the first time since 1998. The CPP’s share of the popular vote shrank by about 25 per cent, whereas the CNRP gained 45 per cent of the popular vote (thanks largely to the unification of the opposition Sam Rainsy and Human Rights parties). In the June 2017 local government elections, the CPP lost more than 20 per cent of all local government seats to the CNRP.

Second, the CNRP leader’s flaws provided opportunities for the CPP-led government to exploit the parliament, the judiciary and public sentiment in order to undo the CNRP. In its attempt to discredit the opposition, the CPP has time and again disclosed Sokha’s immoral and inappropriate behaviours. Before the treason charge came his sexual scandals. Sokha also boasts of US support in his political endeavours, which may have eroded his reputation as a credible national leader. These scandals gave the CPP plausible reason to criminalise him and disband his party.

Third, the dissolution of the CNRP occurred in the broader context of Cambodia’s extractive political institutions. Rules of the game in Cambodian politics have been twisted to weaken political accountability and concentrate political power in Prime Minister Hun Sen and his government with the judiciary and the parliament unable to restrain the executive branch.

The country’s current political institutions are in favour of the ruling CPP and its leaders. Cambodia does not limit how many terms a prime minister can serve, which has prolonged Prime Minister Hun Sen’s rule and enabled him to preserve the status quo by building and cementing networks through clientelism among political elites.

In 2006 then opposition leader Sam Rainsy called for an amendment to the Cambodian constitution. The revision (which the CPP readily accepted) reduced the number of lawmakers required to form government and reach quorum in parliament from two thirds to 50 per cent plus one. In effect, the constitutional revision paved the way for the CPP to further consolidate political power and become less constrained in its dominance of the executive and legislative branches.

For instance, the CPP government adopted various laws in 2014 to further empower itself and to eliminate threats to its power despite the opposition boycott at the time. These laws placed the Cambodian Ministry of Justice at the centre of all key decisions by the courts and charged the Supreme Council of the Magistracy with appointing, disciplining and overseeing the country’s judicial system.

The demise of the Cambodian opposition represents a big blow to political equilibrium in the country. Given the nature of Cambodia’s unconstrained executive office, this outcome should be of no surprise. Without institutional checks and balances, it is within the CPP’s rational interest to exploit whatever opportunities arise in order to maintain power, and the flaws in the CNRP make it even less costly for the CPP to eliminate the opposition. If institutional checks are not enacted and the underlying causes of Cambodia’s current political trends are not resolved, similar outcomes are destined to occur into perpetuity.

Kongkea Chhoeun is a PhD candidate at the Crawford School of Public Policy, The Australian National University.

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