Cambodians vote in local election amid intimidation, threats

His party is the only one to field candidates nationwide in all 1,652 communes. Its only serious rival, the Candlelight Party, has candidates in 1,632 communes, and the royalist FUNCINPEC Party has challengers in 688 communes. 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 ahead of the general election, and are regarded as a test of the parties’ strength.

In the last communal elections in 2017, the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party made an unexpectedly strong showing, which led Hun Sen’s government to crack down on it as well as independent media. The party was dissolved by the Supreme Court on a charge of treason, widely seen as politically motivated, and the free press was driven out of business or cowed into submission.

Cambodians search for their names at a polling station during local council elections in Phnom Penh. Photo: EPA-EFE

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

Several Western nations imposed sanctions on the government after concluding the 2018 election was neither free nor fair. The harshest measure came from the European Union, which withdrew some preferential trading privileges.

The dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party, whose sitting members were also ousted from their political posts, remains banned, with most of its top leaders in exile.

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

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

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