Partyforumseasia: Whatever the real power structures are, the international image of a party system is important. Single party systems look somewhat authoritarian, outdated in some parts of the world, and at least a semblance of formal democracy looks better for investors.
Cambodia may have started thinking along these lines, whether for her international image or for her internal social cohesion or a repair-remedy for the latter.
In the July 2018 elections, in which twenty parties had participated, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) had won all 125 seats of the parliament. Five years before that, the CPP could only garner a small majority of 68 seats, while the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) had won 55. That was obviously a bit too narrow for the CPP and its leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is ruling the country since 1985. For the world’s longest serving and probably most battle-hardened Prime Minister at only 67 years of age, the idea of letting the opposition win might be difficult to accept. Anyway, one of the results of 2013 was the dissolution of the CNRP by the Supreme Court in September 2017. The justification was an alleged plot to topple the Prime Minister and his government. Since CNRP-co-chairman Sam Rainsy was already abroad in self-exile, the remaining leader Kem Sokha was detained as one of the coup-plotters. International standards are difficult to apply, in bigger parts of the world opposition as such is not a crime and competing in elections against the incumbent ruling party considered quite normal. There is no doubt that an upcoming country like Cambodia and her economy need internal stability, but the popularity of the CNRP and especially Kem Sokha were showing that many voters did not fear chaos or the unforgotten horrors of the country’s civil war coming back in case the opposition had won.
If the Hun Sen government should start to think twice about the damaging effects of one party rule for Cambodia’s image and investment climate, the recent formation of a new party may be an indication. Banned and dissolved political parties morphing into new ones with a different name and program are not an exception in the region, the nearest example being the two re-incarnations of Thaksin Shinawatra’s Thai Rak Thai Party in neighbouring Thailand. The re-incarnation of the CNRP has been allowed in principle by Sar Kheng, Minister of Home Affairs last week, saying in a letter:
“To obtain validity and be able to carry out activities in accordance with the Law on Political Parties, the Cambodian Nation Love Party must apply to be registered with the Ministry of Interior in accordance with Articles 9 and 20, and new Articles 14 and 19 of the Law on Political Parties.”
The applicants, according to the Phnom Penh Post as of January 7, are former CNRP members “after they received political rehabilitation”. And the new name of the party, Cambodian Nation Love Party (CNLP), is as close to the old one in the acronym as “rehabilitated” in essence.
While exiled leader Sam Rainsy has unsuccessfully tried to put pressure on Hun Sen and the CPP via his excellent international contacts, the CNLP may avoid that trap which led to the coup and plot accusations.
For the very popular co-leader Kem Sokha, the plot theory will be treated in the Phnom Penh Municipal Court coming January 15th. Kem is directly accused of “conspiracy with a foreign power”, committed between 1993 (!!) and his detention in 2017. He could be convicted to a maximum of 30 years in prison.
The risk for the CPP government after such a harsh conviction could be a massive erosion of ground support, especially among the many younger Cambodians. Whether the American support, just celebrating 70 years of diplomatic relations, or the EU preferential trade arrangements would suffer, remains questionable. All too often, the Hun Sen government has ignored their calls for more democracy in the last 30 years without any consequences.