New Party, Old Hurdles: Cambodian Opposition Struggles to Bounce Back

Opposition supporters wave national flags of some Western countries who were signatory parties to the 22 year old Paris Peace Agreement, Phnom Penh, Oct 24, 2013. (Heng Reaksmey/VOA Khmer), cc Heng Reaksmey, modified,

On May 20, the former vice president of the dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Pol Ham, joined the newly-established Cambodia Reform Party (CRP), making him the most senior CNRP figure to date to switch allegiance. Pol Ham was among 118 former CNRP members who were banned from participating in politics for five years after the CNRP was dissolved by the Supreme Court in 2017. His return last month followed a request submitted to the king to re-enter politics, which was approved.

In all, 24 former CNRP members have returned to politics in this way, enabling them to join a raft of new opposition parties that have sprung up to challenge prime minister Hun Sen, whose Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has ruled Cambodia since 1985. The CRP, formed earlier this year by Pol Ham’s former CNRP colleague Ou Chanrath, aims to attract more veteran figures from the CNRP and compete in local commune polls next year, before taking on the CPP in the 2023 general election.

Familiar hurdles await. In Hun Sen’s 35-year stint as prime minister, he has proven adept at fending off opponents by means fair or foul. Hun Sen insists that a “democratic process” remains in place in Cambodia, despite the CPP winning all 125 seats in the 2018 election, which was contested in the absence of any major challenger. As evidenced by the fate of the CNRP ahead of that vote—dissolved after an alleged plot to overthrow the government—an opposition party capable of winning is something that Hun Sen will not allow.


Recovering from the CNRP’s dissolution in 2017

Ou Chanrath hopes that the CRP can become a credible opposition party, drawing on support from former CNRP voters. The CNRP was established in 2012 through the merger of the Sam Rainsy Party and Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party. It proved popular with the public and sprung a surprise in the 2013 election, slashing the CPP’s parliamentary majority to just 13 seats. The result, leaving the CPP with 68 seats to the CNRP’s 55, was the ruling party’s worst electoral performance since the 1990s.

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