The Cambodian political scene is reminiscent of that of Mexico in the decades after the Mexican Revolution. Cambodia is dominated by a single political party - the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) - which has been the ruling party since the present constitution was adoped in 1993. For more than a dozen years prior to that, it had ruled as the Khmer People's Revolutionary Party, having been installed by the Vietnamese Army in 1979. The party leader, Hun Sen, has led the country since 1985.
For the past quarter century, USAID programming in Cambodia has promoted human rights, supported democratic institutions, and strengthened the role of women and youth in the political process. USAID has worked with the government and political parties - both those in power and those not - to enfranchise all of Cambodia's citizens.
Generally, political parties in Cambodia tend to focus their activities around one party leader without much internal party democracy and weak programmatic identity. The three most influential political parties in Cambodia are the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), the Sam Rainsy Party [SRP], and FUNCINPEC. As of 2012 the ruling CPP had 73 out of the 123 seats in the National Assembly. Political parties must register with the Ministry of Interior in order to carry out their activities. There are 57 registered parties, of which 11 have contested the2008 election, although it was expected from the outset that only five parties would be represented in the new National Assembly: the ruling Cambodia's People Party (CPP), the National United Front for Independent, Neutral, Peaceful and Co-operative Cambodia (FUNCINPEC), the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), the Norodom Ranariddh Party (NRP) and the Human Rights Party (HRP).
The Alliance of Democrats (AD) that formed after the 2003 elections consisted of FUNCINPEC and the SRP, as both parties had won seats in the national elections. The CPP had won the most seats but still lacked the necessary two-thirds majority in order to form a government, and needed one of the parties to join with it as a governing partner. In order to leverage their respective parties' seats into a better power-sharing agreement for both FUNCINPEC and SRP, the two parties (at Rainsy's initiative) formed the AD in order to win greater concessions from the CPP. In the end, however, Ranariddh made a deal with Hun Sen and joined the government, leaving the SRP in opposition on its own. A similar alliance took place following 1998 parliamentary elections, after which FUNCINPEC deserted the SRP.
A fundamental flaw in the Cambodian electoral process, known to all parties, is the overwhelming domination of mass media by the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP), though the print press is indeed quite free and at least a dozen newspapers with lively commentaries appear on newsstands every day. During the 30-day election 2005 campaign itself, the ten parties other than CPP had abundant opportunity to get their message out on TV and radio airwaves.
On 25 April 2007 and only one day behind the National Election Committee's schedule, the NEC announced the final results of the April 1 commune elections. There were no surprises, as each party had collected preliminary results from their respective party monitors within a week of the election. The CPP won 7,987 seats, garnering just over 61 percent of the popular vote (roughly the same percentage as 2002). The SRP won 2,671 seats capturing 25.5 percent of the popular vote -- a marked increase for the SRP compared with its 2002 results.
Among the amendments to Cambodia’s law on political parties that Hun Sen and the CPP proposed in early 2017 was one that would bar anyone convicted in Cambodian courts from holding a political party’s top office. The “culprit law” would also dissolve any party whose president is convicted of a crime and would enable the government to seize the party’s property. Cambodian courts are notorious for their lack of independence. Opposition politicians often find themselves before Hun Sen’s pliant courts on various charges.
The new party law was approved in the CPP-dominated National Assembly. When the changes were approved by the Cambodian Senate and signed by Cambodia's King Norodom Sihamoni, the amendments would also give the Cambodian Supreme Court the power to dissolve a party caught committing a list of vague offenses. The Interior Ministry would also be empowered to indefinitely suspend a party for similarly vague reasons.
Political power in the country has shifted away from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) to the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, which has gained more chiefs and council members in local commune elections while picking up seats in the National Assembly. At the last national election in 2013, the CPP took 55 percent of the total 123 seats and the CNRP took 45 percent, according to results tabulated by the Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC). In the 2017 commune election, the CPP took 56 percent of 11,572 commune seats – both the chiefs and the council members – representing 1,646 communes. The CRNP took 43 percent, or 5,007 commune seats.
Cambodian People's Party (CPP)
The Cambodian People’s Party is the party of power in Cambodia. The party was formed as the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea (KPRP, French acronym “PRPK ‘). This began as a splinter group from the Khmer Rouge of Pol Pot. The senior members were senior Khmer Rouge cadre, including Hun Sen, Chea Sim, Heng Samrin, Sar Kheng, Tea Banh. The split came after Pol Pot started his periodical purges against party members. This group fled to Vietnam to save themselves from the Pol Pot purge. The PRPK installed in government by the Vietnamese in 1979. It was the only legal party under the People’s Republic of Kampuchea (PRK) from 1981 to 1989 and first two years of State of Cambodia from 1989 to 1991. The name was changed during the transition period under the State of Cambodia.
The KPRP was originally a Marxist-Leninist, but took a more reformist socialist path the early 1980s under the leadership of Heng Samrin. Heng Samrin entered Cambodia with the Vietnamese invading forces and was appointed the president of the State Council and Secretary General of the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea and served in that capacity until 1989. However, Heng Samrin did not have a strong power base consequently leading to the erosion of his power as the political climate in Cambodia changed. With anticipation of a comprehensive political settlement, the People’s Revolutionary Party of Kampuchea transformed itself into the Cambodian People’s Party with Chea Sim as president and Hun Sen as vice president. Heng Samrin was then given a new ceremonial title of Honorary President. As Vietnamese influence declined, Heng began losing his posts, including the post of secretary-general in 1991 and chairman of the council of state in 1992. When King Norodom Sihanouk was restored in 1993, Heng was made honorary chairman of Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party.
By 1988 the person with real power in the Heng Samrin government was Hun Sen, the prime minister and minister of foreign affairs. The CPPP is led by Chea Sim, the Chairman of the Senate, and Prime Minister Hun Sen. The party has considerable resources at its disposal, controls most of the key political posts and has a very effective and present organisation both in urban areas and at village level. The CPP benefits from their longstanding presence in government and capitalises on the general positive economic development.
By mid-2009 the wider political space seen in Cambodia during the run-up to the 2008 National Assembly elections in July 2008 was undergoing an autocratic nip-and-tuck as the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) exerted one of its periodic reining-in exercises in the name of greater social order and security. When CPP leaders perceive a choice between pluralistic liberal democracy and order, stability and economic development, they exploit that conflict to maximize their own power and preempt opposition challenges to their political authority. A familiar pattern of post-election crackdowns seen in 1995, 1998, and 2005 (often using defamation as the muzzle of choice), played out once again. CPP members recognize that one of the CPP's biggest advantages is holding together as a unified party. The CPP's party structure remains stronger than either FUNCINPEC or the SRP with greater control down to the grassroots levels.
During elections, support for CPP candidates is routinely bought with gifts of rice and sarongs. In addition, supporters of opposition parties may be given similar inducements by CPP activists to stay home from the polls. The large number of CPP party offices spread across the country, and recent electoral successes, suggest the CPP has found a successful formula for recruiting and retaining party cadres. Gifts of rice are offered on a regular basis, and another plausible “reward” is allowing loyal cadres and their families to avoid exactions they would otherwise be forced to meet.
FUNCINPEC is the Front Uni National pour un Cambodge Indépendant Neutre Pacifique Et Coopératif - National United Front for an Independent, Neutral, Peaceful, and Cooperative Cambodia. The royalist FUNCINPEC was founded in 1978 and had been led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh. Sihanouk's political organization, emerged in the 1980s as an increasingly popular resistance group, that drew support from a broad range of Cambodians. FUNCINPEC's indispensable asset was Sihanouk himself. He maintained residences in Pyongyang, in Mougins (located in southern France), and in Beijing. His son, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, was Sihanouk's sole authorized spokesman and was the head of FUNCINPEC's office in Bangkok. Among his confidants were Nhek Tioulong, a former cabinet minister under Sihanouk; Buor Hel, a cousin of Sihanouk's; and Chak Saroeun, FUNCINPEC secretary general. As vice president of the organization's Executive Committee and commander in chief of the ANS, former prime minister In Tam was also a key FUNCINPEC loyalist, but he resigned in March 1985 as the result of a feud with Prince Ranariddh.
FUNCINPEC had its share of internal problems. After In Tam's departure, Ranariddh, to the dismay of In Tam's supporters, became the ANS's temporary commander in chief. In January 1986, Sihanouk reshuffled the ANS high command, formally appointing his son commander in chief and, in addition, ANS chief of staff. Sihanouk also dismissed General Teap Ben, who had been chief of staff since 1981, for alleged embezzlement of refugee funds and for disloyalty; Tean Ben was relegated to the nominal post of deputy commander in chief of the Joint Military Command.
A number of its members belong to the royal family. The party has been in gradual decline, in particular since the 2003 elections. FUNCINEPC leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh resigned 03 March 2006 as the President of the National Assembly. In 2006, the party ousted Prince Ranariddh, who established subsequently the Norodom Ranariddh Party (NRP). Prince Ranariddh lost his seat in the National Assembly in March 2007 and thus also his parliamentary immunity. He was then found guilty of breach of trust in a lawsuit and sentenced to 18 months in prison. Prince Ranariddh did not appear in Court, claiming that the judgement was politically motivated and lived in France and Malaysia.
FUNCINPEC's ability to win National Assembly seats has consistently declined since 1993 as the SRP has continued to grow in strength. FUNCINPEC's leaders articulate no clear sense of how to guide their party and seem to hope that FUNCINPEC's former glory and their willingness to form alliances with anyone will ensure their survival. The party seems least interested in joining a grand coalition of opposition forces. FUNCINPEC's purported platform of "progressive monarchy" fails to distinguish it from any of the other opposition parties, who all support greater political freedoms and maintaining the monarchy. Moreover, in Cambodia's personality-driven politics, FUNCINPEC's bland leaders have nothing to offer voters. Given the party's lack of ideological backbone and apparent willingness to partner with anyone who asks, the party is likely to survive for a while longer, fading slowly, but never gaining any real influence or power.
Sam Rainsy Party (SRP)
The Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) was, following FUNCINPEC's coalition with the CPP, the opposition led by the former economy and finance minister Sam Rainsy. It belongs to the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats. Its main campaign message was good governance, anti-corruption and accountability and its electorate is mainly urban.
Opposition party leader Sam Rainsy was convicted in absentia 27 January 2009 on charges of destroying public property and inciting national discrimination for his role in removing temporary markers delineating the Cambodia-Vietnam border; he was sentenced to two years in prison and a fine of 8 million riel (approximately $1,950 USD). Two villagers who participated in the 25 October 2008 events were convicted and sentenced to one year in jail each. In addition, the three defendants were ordered collectively to pay 55 million riel (approximately $13,400 USD) in compensation to the provincial government. SRP insiders confirm that Rainsy would appeal the decision to keep his seat in parliament, though some SRP members admitted that Rainsy "probably stepped over the line" by inciting or abetting interference in the border demarcation process with Vietnam -- a divisive political and social issue. They acknowledge that Rainsy's continued absence from Cambodia will affect the party's ability to rally and unite its electoral base, but have formulated a strategy for Rainsy to give digital video conferences. In the meantime, the SRP continued to attack the government on the border issue using anti-Vietnamese rhetoric.
With the 27 January 2009 verdict, Rainsy cannot return to Cambodia unless he goes to prison or receives a pardon, which requires agreement of the government. In the meantime, without a leader present in Cambodia able to project a confident image and articulate opposition perspectives, the SRP faces tough decisions about what to do next and the ultimate direction of their party.
Sam Rainsy had been living in France since 2015 to avoid arrest in a defamation case brought by former Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in 2008. In October 2016, Hun Sen ordered police, immigration, and aviation authorities to "use all ways and means" to prevent the opposition leader from returning to the country.
Cambodia National Rescue Party
The Cambodian parliament in 2017 passed two repressive amendments to Cambodia’s Law on Political Parties that allow authorities to dissolve political parties and ban party leaders from political activity, and which contain numerous restrictions tailored to create obstacles for opposition parties in an attempt to maintain the CPP’s hold on power. As a result of the amendments to the law, CNRP ties with its former president Sam Rainsy have in effect been severed, with Rainsy prohibited from campaigning from abroad for his party.
On July 10 of this year, the Cambodian Parliament adopted an amendment, proposed by Hun Sen, to the Law on Political Parties, to ban political parties “from associating with or using the voice, image, or written documents of anyone convicted of a criminal offense,” with parties found to be in violation of this measure to face being “banned from political activities for up to five years and prohibited from competing in elections, or even dissolved.” The Constitutional Council subsequently approved the amendment, and the Senate President, Say Chhum, who was acting head of state in the absence of the King of Cambodia, signed the legislation into effect on July 28 in a state of “urgency.”
Kem Sokha, the President of CNRP, was arrested on September 3, 2017, and charged with treason and conspiring with the United States Government to overthrow the Government of Cambodia, and if convicted faces up to 30 years in prison, which sets the stage for the CNRP to be dissolved.
Brad Adams, Asia director of the advocacy group Human Rights Watch, referred to Hun Sen’s actions to remove the CNRP and its members as “a naked power grab, canceling the votes of millions of Cambodians in previous elections and rendering next year’s national elections meaningless.” He added, “democracy died in Cambodia today [November 16, the day of the ruling] and it’s hard to see it reviving” as long as the Hun Sen regime holds sway.
On November 16, 2017, Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolved the country’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), and placed a five-year ban to effectively preclude 118 CNRP members from participation in any political activity. The issuance of the ruling was preceded by the arrest of Kem Sokha, the leader of the CNRP, on charges of his party’s “plotting to overthrow the current government with the help of the US government.” Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) reportedly consider Sokha as posing a major threat to Hun Sen’s hold on to power in the country’s upcoming elections. The CNRP contends that political motivations are behind the accusations against it and Sokha’s arrest. The Court is headed by a judge who is a member of the CPP.
Hun Sen's government planned to redistribute its 55 seats in the lower house of the National Assembly to five political parties that didn't win any seats in the 2013 general election.
Most of the 55 opposition MPs who lost their seats after the party was dissolved have left the country, fearing arrest, but CNRP officials who remain in Cambodia said they missed the spirit of the 2013 campaign, a period of optimism and activism, while recent months have been marked by mass surveillance of dissidents and a crackdown on freedom of expression.
League for Democracy Party (LDP)
The League for Democracy Party (LDP) is one of 19 parties registered to compete against the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and its leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen. The LDP is known in Khmer as Sampoan, or The League. Unlike many of the other minor parties competing in the poll, some dubbed as “fireflies” for their expected fleeting nature, the LDP has become a familiar household name in Cambodian politics since it was founded in 2005. Since its founding, the LDP has gained a reputation for its goal of building “a motherland where everyone has an equal right to its ownership” and their so-called “eight mechanisms” to empower people through reforms to decrease state power. The LDP as a party believes that “the root cause of problems in Cambodia is the concentration of power.”
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