Cambodia is a country located in the region of Southeastern Asia. Cambodia’s People’s Party (CPP) with Prime Minister Hun Sen at the forefront has ruled the country since 1993, when Cambodia formally became a democracy. In reality, people’s government has only partly been advised. Especially after the 2013 election, when the CPP fell sharply back, Hun Sen has become increasingly authoritarian. Prior to the July 2018 elections, the rulers had virtually eliminated all political opposition and Cambodia was almost considered a one-party state. The election therefore became a walking victory for the CPP.
During the 2013-2018 term, the CPP government’s repression of independent media, political opposition and individual NGOs gradually grew stronger. Not least, the government used the judiciary to undermine all opposition. At the end of 2016, both President Sam Rainsy and Vice President Kem Sokha of the largest opposition party Cambodia’s National Rescue Party (CNRP) were sentenced to prison, along with a number of other party members (see Modern History). However, Rainsy was in exile in France when the verdict against him fell.
- Countryaah: Country facts and history of Cambodia, including state flag, location map, demographics, GDP data, currency code, and business statistics.
Even in previous elections, cheating and skewed conditions have occurred, but CPP has nevertheless been judged to have real support among the people. According to analysts, a difference in the 2013 election was that voters were no longer intimidated by Hun Sens’s assurance that only he could prevent the Red Khmer from coming back. A majority of Cambodians are born after the terrorist violence and the Vietnamese occupation, and do not have genocide and war in focus. Many, instead, see a powerful elite who are at the expense of the majority and exclude them from influence and prosperity. There is also a growing social concern about the state’s seizure of land. Use and ownership rights are often violated when land is confiscated to prepare space for plantations, mining, factories or luxury homes.
The opposition party is dissolved
In 2017, new setbacks for the opposition came. In February, Parliament passed a new law banning convicted persons from being party leaders. As a result, Rainsy resigned as leader of the CNRP and was replaced by secondman Kem Sokha.
Since CNRP progressed strongly in local elections in June, political tensions increased even more. The CPP now feared that the CNRP could indeed win the parliamentary elections in July 2018. In September 2017, Kem Sokha was prosecuted for treason and risked being sentenced to 30 years in prison. A month later, almost half of the CNRP’s MPs had left the country, for fear of being arrested.
In a slaying for democracy in Cambodia, the Supreme Court in November 2017 decided to dissolve the CNRP, ban 118 of its representatives from working politically for the next five years, and exclude CNRP members in Parliament. Their seats were taken over by small party or CPP representatives. The decision to dissolve the CNRP came after Hun Sen accused the opposition party of working with the United States to overthrow the government. Both the US and the EU subsequently withdrew their support for the Cambodian election and the electoral commission.
In the first half of 2018, the government continued to restrict the freedom of action of the opposition and the free media. In January, a crack could be seen in the opposition when a group of Cambodians in exile, including Rainsy, formed Cambodia’s National Rescue Movement (CNRM) in the United States. Its purpose was to coordinate the peaceful opposition to the CPP government and fight to get Kem Sokha released. It was mainly former supporters of Sam Rainsy’s party (SRP) who participated in the CNRM, while former members of the Human Rights Party (HRP) chose not to participate when they saw CNRM as too strongly linked to Rainsy (for party descriptions see Political system).
Another election victory for CPP
In February 2018, an election to the Senate was held without any real opposition. Before the general elections in July, Cambodia was in practice a one-party state. Alongside the CPP, there were only a few harmless small parties and the government party won as expected a landslide victory. The CPP received all 125 seats in Parliament’s lower house (increased by two seats in March 2018). Supporters of the dissolved CNRP called for election boycotts, but the authorities exerted pressure to get voters to participate.
With victory victory secured, Hun Sen eased somewhat on the intolerance of dissimilar thinking. Among other things, he asked the king to pardon a number of imprisoned CNRP members. Fourteen imprisoned CNRP supporters were released after writing to Hun Sen and apologizing. CNRP leader Kem Sokha did not belong to the pardoned. He was locked in a remote prison near the border with Vietnam.
The pendulum swung again in the summer of 2019 when Sam Rainsy said he would return from exile to Cambodia on Independence Day on November 9. At least twelve opposition activists were assaulted by unknown perpetrators in the fall, about 30 arrested and close to 160 taken into police questioning. Two of those arrested were indicted in September for treason and about 10, including Rainsy, for attempted rioting.
As Independence Day on November 9 approached, the security challenge was strengthened both along the borders and in Phnom Penh. Hun Sen asked the neighboring countries not to allow exiles to enter Cambodia. On November 7, Sam Rainsy was stopped from boarding an aircraft in Paris. He then managed to get to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, but not to Cambodia. Prohibited CNRP Vice President Mu Sochua was arrested at Kuala Lumpur Airport, as well as two other exiles in exile.
On November 10, 2019, Kem Sokha was released for health reasons, just over two years after he was arrested on suspicion of overthrowing activities. Kem Sokha had recently been in house arrest. However, Kem Sokha is not allowed to leave the country or engage politically.
Read more about the events in the Calendar.
READING TIPS – read more about Cambodia in UI’s web magazine Foreign Magazine:
Authoritarian regimes spread in the countries of Southeast Asia (2018-10-09).
DEEP on Cambodia can also be found in World Policy Day Issues:
Cambodia and Sri Lanka: Threats to Democracy (Nos. 7–8 2018)
FACTS – POLITICS
Preah Reacheanachakr Kampuchea / Kingdom of Cambodia
monarchy, unitary state
Head of State
King Norodom Sihamoni (2004–)
Head of government
Prime Minister Hun Sen (1985–)
Most important parties with mandates in the last election
Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) 125 (2018) 1
Main parties with mandates in the second most recent elections
Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) 68, Cambodia’s National Rescue Party (CNRP) 55 (2013)
70% in the 2013 parliamentary elections, 83% in the 2018 parliamentary elections
parliamentary elections 2023
- The main opposition party, the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP), dissolved in November 2017