Cambodia’s main opposition party may not appear on July ballots

There’s a growing possibility that Cambodia’s main opposition Candlelight Party may not be allowed to compete in July’s general elections after the Ministry of Interior is refusing to reissue a registration certificate.

If the Candlelight Party is barred from the July 23 vote, it almost certainly means that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia’s People’s Party will waltz to victory, continuing his iron grip on power since he became prime minister in 1985.

The snag appears to be over paperwork.

The Candlelight Party submitted its application, along with other parties, to run in the election on May 6, two days before the deadline, and the Interior Ministry has submitted a statement to the National Election Committee confirming the party’s registration.

But the commission says it needs the more formal certificate dating back from 1998, when it first registered itself, Candlelight Party spokesman Kim Sou Phirith told Radio Free Asia on Friday.

That certificate, however, was lost when the offices of the Cambodia National Rescue Party – the previous main opposition party – were raided by government agents in 2017. The Candlelight Party, founded by Sam Rainsy in 1995, was a part of the opposition camp at that time.

And the Interior Ministry has refused to re-issue a registration certificate.

“There is no good news,” said Kim Sou Phrith. “The Ministry of Interior has maintained that the statement the ministry issued is enough.”

Harassing and threatening opponents

The crisis is the latest difficulty for the party as it attempts to recruit candidates and campaign for votes.

For months, party activists in the provinces have been monitored, harassed and threatened while top officials in Phnom Penh continue to face legal issues they say are politically motivated.

Going back to 2017, the CNRP was ordered disbanded by the Supreme Court later that year – another way that Hun Sen has tried to eliminate his political opponents.

After the party was dissolved, former CNRP members and others revived the Candlelight Party in 2021.

Interior Ministry officials have left it to the NEC and the party to work out whether the ministry’s statement can be adequate verification, Kim Sou Phirith said.

“The NEC might think it is an independent organization, but the ministry has registered all the parties and the ministry has recognized us, so why is the NEC still denying us?” he said.

Party officials will again resubmit the statement to the NEC on Saturday, Kim Sou Phirith said.

If that doesn’t work, he said they’ll file an appeal to the Constitutional Council, a judicial body that examines election disputes, among other matters.

Right now, it’s hard to predict whether the NEC will allow the party to register for the election, he said.

Pardons and defections

Meanwhile, King Norodom Sihamoni has pardoned nine opposition party activists after they apologized to Hun Sen and joined with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

One of the activists is Kong Mas, a former CNRP activist who was convicted of treason and incitement after he supported Sam Rainsy’s proposed repatriation in 2019. Sam Rainsy has lived in exile in France since 2015.

There have been a number of high-profile defections to the CPP in recent months as Hun Sen and others have sought to co-opt and silence opposition figures. Most defectors have been appointed to government posts.

Also this week, the king agreed to appoint a former U.S.-based political commentator to a government position. So Naro fled to the United States several years ago to seek political asylum after he had a dispute with several senior CPP officials.

“Samdech understood my injustice and he investigated the case,” he told RFA, using an honorific for Hun Sen. “I was a victim and it was unfortunate. Samdech didn’t know about it before, now he is responsible and took action to restore my position. I am happy to return to my old position.”

So Naro said he will give advice to the prime minister but won’t be working in any of the ministries.

“I am a U.S. citizen and a free citizen, no one can control me,” he said. “I have met Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha. I know that Hun Sen has better qualities as a leader.”

Finland-based political analyst Kim Sok said Hun Sen has been using all means to convince activists to defect to the CPP by intimidating and bribing them before the election. But he’ll get rid of them when the CPP doesn’t need them, he said.

“We should be vigilant against those who have jumped ship for their own benefit,” he said.

The ruling party has been generous in giving government positions to defectors, party spokesman Sok Ey San said.

“The CPP doesn’t care about any criticism about the appointment because this is the CPP’s kindness,” he said.

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