On June 4-5th Cambodia will hold elections for both local government and its national assembly. Currently all the seats (125) are held by Hun Sen and the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), but this is likely to change with the emergence of the Sam Rainsy led Candlelight Party.
A brief history of Cambodian politics
While often portrayed as a dictatorship the on the ground situation in Cambodia is somewhat more complex. Following the overthrow of the vicious Khmer Rouge regime the country was run by the Soviet and more importantly Vietnamese backed Kampuchean People’s Revolutionary Party (KPRP)
During this period the party ran the country as one party communist state called the Peoples Republic of Kampuchea, replacing Pol Pot and the genocidal regime of Democratic Kampuchea.
IN 1988 the party changed its name to the Cambodian Peoples Party and following the lead of other communist states started to open up economically. It was also during this period that the country would rename itself the State of Cambodia, while a successful transition to pace would lead to elections in 1993.
These elections were not only boycotted by the Khmer Rouge, who created their own quasi-state on the Thai border, but were to end in essentially a hung parliament between the CPP and FUNCINPEC, the royalist party led by the son of the now King Sihanouk.
The following stand-off not only resulted in the country almost splitting into three parts, but also risked all-out civil war. In the end a compromise was reached whereby the CPP and FUNCINPEC would share power. This compromise either saved Cambodia, or was its last chance of “real democracy”, depending very much on your standpoint.
The reality of modern Cambodian Politics
Regardless of your thoughts on the compromise we do know the following, the Khmer Rouge were vanquished entirely in 1998 through the successful Win-Win policy, FUNCINPEC were destroyed as a viable opposition, Cambodia is now one of the fastest growing economies in the world and that the CPP have been in power ever since.
In the elections of 2018 the main opposition led by Sam Rainsy, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) and its leader were banned from taking part and the CPP won all 125 seats.
This has led to the country being called either a dictatorship, or dominant party system, while Sam Rainsy is painted as a democratic saint by many in the west, but again there is much more to the story.
Who is Sam Rainsy?
Born in Phnom Penh in 1949 he was to move to France in 1965 where he worked as an investment manager, not returning to Cambodia until 1992 where he was elected as a member of parliament for Siem Reap for FUNCINPEC.
His allure came from his financial background in a democratic country with him not having lived through either the Khmer Rouge years, nor in the country when it was a communist state.
In 1995 he founded the Khmer Nation Party, before renaming it the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) in 1998. This was allegedly due to registration issues, but many have questioned the kind of ego that would lead to literally naming a whole political party after himself.
The party would win 15 seats in the 1998 elections, 24 in 2003 and 26 in 2008, officially under the banner of liberalism and the motto integrity, truth and justice. The SRP would later morph into the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) after it merged with he Human Rights Party, but was for all intents was a continuation of the SRP.
During this period another key tenet of Sam Rainsy’s policies were revealed, racist anti-Vietnamese policies, as well as a hatred for everyone he felt had conspired with the Vietnamese, which to him at least meant the CPP. So, while often deified in the west as champion of democracy, his success was at least partially built using the same policies of all great fascists, intense xenophobia.
Since 2006 he has been sentenced to numerous terms in prison for defamation, has gone into exile only to return when pardoned by Hun Sen, only for the same to happen again. In 2015 his last pardon was withdrawn and he was again in exile. In 2017 he resigned as leader of opposition, but it still fell foul of the law, resulting in its non participate in the 2018 elections.
From his exile he was though to remain a darling of the west, with countries such as the USA withdrawing from various funding programs in the country, thus pushing it further towards China and out of the western orbit .Despite not being in the country his presence still looms in the Kingdom, which is what led to the formation of the Candlelight Party.
Who are the Candlelight Party?
In the words of Sam Rainsy himself it is a direct continuation of the SRP, with the same logo and motto, with its popularity proving that “Cambodian still yearn for democracy”, again in his own words.
But why the Candlelight Party? Again according to Rainsy it was quite simply because he couldn’t now legally name the party ofter himself. Quite whether the Cambodian electorate will see him as he would like, a liberal bringer of democracy, or as he has been accused, a US puppet and xenophobe will be be laid clear when the election results come in.
If the results though end in anything but a clear victory for either side then sadly the peace, prosperity and stability that the country has enjoyed for so long is seriously at risk. Regardless Rainsy will be safe and sound in his Paris apartment.