Cambodians vote in local elections amid intimidation and threats

Cambodians will vote in local elections on Sunday that will be their first chance to go to the polls since long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party won a 2018 general election that was widely criticized as unfair.

Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party is sure to take another easy win after what the UN Human Rights Office said was a pattern of “threats, intimidation and obstruction against opposition candidates. †

It said candidates have faced numerous restrictions and reprisals that have hindered their activities. and several are incarcerated. Four days before the election, at least six opposition candidates and activists are in detention awaiting trial, while others who have been summoned on politically motivated charges have gone into hiding, the Human Rights Office said in a statement.

Cambodia’s delegation to UN offices in Geneva said in a statement that the criticism was “false, politicized and selective”. It said that “all political parties, including the opposition parties, have fully exercised their rights in accordance with the laws and registered schedules without any threat and obstruction.”

Hun Sen, an authoritarian ruler in a nominally democratic state, has been in power for 37 years. He has said he plans to remain in office until 2028 and has endorsed one of his sons to succeed him.

His party is the only one to have selected candidates in all 1,652 municipalities across the country. Its only serious rival, the Candlelight Party, has candidates in 1,632 municipalities, and the royalist FUNCINPEC Party has challengers in 688 municipalities. There are a total of 82,786 candidates from 17 political parties with 9.2 million registered voters.

The local elections are held a year before the general election and are considered a test of the strength of the parties.

In the last municipal elections in 2017, the main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party, made an unexpected impression, prompting Hun Sen’s government to crack down, as did independent media. The party was dissolved by the Supreme Court on charges of treason, widely regarded as politically motivated, and the free press was declared bankrupt or forced into submission.

Without the Cambodian National Rescue Party on the ballot, Hun Sen’s party was assured of victory in the following year’s general election.

Several Western countries imposed sanctions on the government after the 2018 elections were neither free nor fair. The most severe measure came from the European Union, which revoked a number of preferential trade privileges.

Cambodia’s disbanded National Rescue Party, whose incumbent members were also ousted from their political posts, remains banned, with most of its top leaders in exile.

The Candlelight Party is now trying to challenge the ruling party by rallying its former supporters, though its activities have been severely curtailed.

The original Candlelight Party was founded in 1995 by Sam Rainsy, Hun Sen’s main political rival, and was later merged into the National Rescue Party of Cambodia. Faced with legal harassment, Sam Rainsy went into self-exile in France, and Cambodia’s National Rescue Party co-founder Kem Sokha is currently on trial on a barely supported charge of treason.