For the first time since 2018, Cambodia will hold national elections in July. But as in 2018, the elections will be completely unfree and unfair, continuing a trend under longtime Prime Minister Hun Sen. During the 2000s and early 2010s, Cambodia had some limited electoral competition; now, Cambodia’s political system is one of complete and total authoritarianism. Also similar to 2018, the main opposition Candlelight Party has been barred from the election. However, this was not the case prior to 2018, when some legitimate opposition parties were allowed to contest elections in Cambodia, even though they had massive obstacles—state control of most broadcast media, unfair election commissions, and outright intimidation—stacked against them. But now the opposition is simply gone.
As Al Jazeera noted in a report on the “election,” “Cambodia’s election commission has disqualified the Candlelight Party, the country’s main opposition party, from contesting July’s election in a move that will allow the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to run virtually unopposed. The commission said the party had failed to submit ‘proper registration documents.’”
Indeed, Hun Sen’s long-ruling CPP is almost sure to take every seat in parliament, without even the fiction of some kind of real opposition contesting the vote. To be sure, Hun Sen wants to hold an election, so supposedly ten other parties have registered, but these are almost all surely parties engineered by the CCP to participate in order to create a false veneer of competition—one no one is actually believing.
Why has Hun Sen become even more intolerant in recent years? He was scared by elections in the early 2010s in which the opposition came close—and probably won, if not for fraud—to actually winning control of parliament. He also wants to set the stage for a potential transition to his son Hun Manet, who has been touted as his successor, though Hun Sen has insisted Hun Manet is not assuming power until 2028 or 2030—Hun Sen insists he wants more years in the premiership. (As Voice of America reported: “I am still standing, so what’s the point of my son being the prime minister,” Hun Sen said late in 2021. “So, his possible [premiership] is not before 2028. It is more likely to take place between 2028 and even 2030. He must wait.”)
The opposition, always struggling to maintain cohesion despite intense internal rivalries, has fractured, albeit not only because of internal problems but also because of years of facing enormous intimidation on every front.
The regional and international environment also has turned in Hun Sen’s favor. With the United States focused on bilateral competition with China and the war in Ukraine, major rights abuses in Southeast Asia have fallen to the bottom of the to-do list for the Biden administration. Even Myanmar, one of the deadliest conflict zones in the world, has received far less attention than it did a year or two ago, as it descends into failed state status and the armed opposition to the junta actually makes major gains against regime forces. China continues to back Hun Sen to the hilt, undermining any leverage other foreign donors have over the autocratic prime minister.
And even in Southeast Asia, governments that sometimes have called out Cambodian abuses and even welcomed Cambodian opposition figures have shifted. Most notably, in Malaysia, led by Anwar Ibrahim, a longtime democratic opposition figure, leading Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy and other opposition figures were recently expelled —essentially siding with Hun Sen. Anwar’s government, which claimed Anwar did not know about the expulsion (a claim hard to believe) may have felt he had no choice, as he presides over a tenuous coalition with UMNO, the longtime ruling party in Malaysia with no love for democrats of any sort.
Still, Malaysia’s actions are a notable sign that the environment in Southeast Asia has become even harder for opposition figures from other countries—if Anwar Ibrahim’s government is expelling opposition leaders, where could one find sanctuary?