Cambodia’s main opposition party has been banned from holding elections

PHNOM PENH. Cambodia’s top opposition party was barred from running in elections scheduled for July on Thursday after the Constitutional Council refused to overturn a decision not to register the party over a paperwork issue.

The Candlelight Party, the only credible challenger to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in the upcoming elections, lost its appeal because its appeal was ruled illegal, the council said in a brief statement.

The decision is final and cannot be appealed.

Cambodia’s courts are widely considered to be influenced by the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party.

On May 16, the National Electoral Commission refused to register the “Candlelight” party on the grounds that it did not provide the necessary documents. A few days later, the party officially submitted an application to the Constitutional Council, asking to cancel the decision of the electoral commission.

Candlelight Party spokesperson Kimsur Firit said he “regrets” Thursday’s decision because it denies the party’s nationwide supporters the ability to vote for their preferred candidates.

“The absence of (Momavar Party) from the elections means that the voice of the people is cut off. Such a step will never happen in a real democratic country,” Kimsur Firit said.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at a news conference in Paris on December 13, 2022. (Francois Maury — AP Photo)

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen at a press conference in Paris on December 13, 2022.

Francois Maury — AP Photo

The US State Department said it would not send official observers to witness the election and was “deeply concerned” by the decision to ban the Candlelight Party from participating.

“The resulting legal actions, threats, harassment and politically motivated criminal charges against opposition parties, independent media and civil society undermine Cambodia’s international obligations to develop as a multi-party democracy,” spokesman Matthew Miller said in a statement.

It called on the Cambodian authorities to “reverse the path so that its citizens can participate in a fair, multi-party democracy”.

About 9.7 million Cambodians are registered to vote in the elections of 125 deputies of the National Assembly to be held on July 23. Eighteen political parties are registered and recognized by the electoral commission, but the absence of the Candlelight Party leaves only Hun Sen’s party, its allies and smaller parties with no national presence to contest the election.

The Cambodian People’s Party has held power for decades and controls nearly all levels of government. 70-year-old Hun Sen, the authoritarian ruler of a nominally democratic state, has been in office for 38 years.

He and his party have all the advantages of being in office before an election, with dominance in the areas of political organization, personnel, finance and media influence. Hun Sen’s eldest son, army chief Hun Manet, is expected to succeed his father as prime minister after the election.

The Candlelight Party is the unofficial successor to the National Salvation Party of Cambodia, which posed a serious challenge to Hun Sen’s party before the 2018 elections. It was disbanded just months before the election in a controversial court ruling that suggested it had planned an illegal overthrow of the government.

The dissolution of the party enabled the ruling party to get all the mandates of the National Assembly. Western countries declared the elections neither free nor fair, and imposed mild economic sanctions in response.

Many prominent members of the opposition are now in self-imposed exile to avoid being jailed on various charges they say are trumped up and unfair.

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