Legal demise of Cambodian democracy

New legislation will empower Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to dissolve the main opposition party for vague reasons ahead of pivotal polls

Phnom Penh, February 21, 2017 1:54 PM (UTC+8)
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures as he arrives for a family photo with other leaders during the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit just outside Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, July 16, 2016.   REUTERS/Damir Sagolj
Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures as he arrives for a family photo with other leaders during the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit just outside Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, July 16, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Cambodias veneer of democracy is fast fading. On Monday, the National Assembly accepted amendments that will allow the government to dissolve political parties for vague and arbitrary reasons, and set the stage for the possible disbandment of the main opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) ahead of pivotal polls.

The amendments to the country’s Law on Political Parties were expedited through the normally sedate national parliament after they were proposed by Prime Minister Hun Sen earlier this month. The amended law has been sent to the Senate and will then require the rubber stamp endorsement of the Constitutional Council and King Norodom Sihamoni, a process that could take just days.  

Once enacted, the amendments will allow the Supreme Court and the Ministry of Interior to indefinitely suspend political parties for several vaguely worded reasons, including “incitement that would lead to national disintegration” and “subverting liberal multi-party democracy” – legal euphemisms for criticism of the government led by Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP).

One amendment bars individuals with convictions and non-suspended prison sentences from serving as political party leaders. The Supreme Court will be able to legally dissolve parties that have such individuals as their leaders. Another amendment rules that the leadership of any dissolved party and those barred because of convictions can be banned from political activity for five years. 

“Once [the amended law] comes into effect, the interior ministry will have full ability to implement it and sweep out any political parties that do not fulfill their functions and duties as political parties,” CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun said on the floor of the National Assembly on Monday.

The legal amendments preempted the resignation of Sam Rainsy as CNRP president on February 11. The exiled pro-democracy politician has numerous allegedly politically motivated defamation convictions to his name and several still pending trial. Sam Rainsy said he resigned to save the party; CNRP vice-president Kem Sokha is acting president.

Cambodian lawmaker and opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Sam Rainsy (2nd R) speaks to people as deputy of the CNRP and first vice president of National Assembly, Kem Sokha (R), listens in front of the National Assembly building during a rally to mark Human Rights day in Phnom Penh on December 10, 2014. The United Nations proclaimed December 10 as Human Rights Day in 1950 after the UN General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights two years previously. AFP PHOTO / TANG CHHIN SOTHY / AFP PHOTO / TANG CHHIN SOTHY
Former Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) leader Sam Rainsy (left) and now acting president Kem Sokha. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

The amended law, Sam Rainsy said last week, aims to “institutionalize a one-party system” in Cambodia. CNRP lawmakers have called it an affront to the Cambodian constitution and boycotted Monday’s vote in the National Assembly, where Hun Sen’s CPP holds a slim majority.

Despite the law’s references to upholding Cambodia’s “multi-party democracy,” critical commentators say its amended version aims for the opposite. The amendments are “the final consolidation of absolute power” by Hun Sen’s government, Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, a rights lobby, said in a statement. Cambodia will have a “sham democracy going forward, perhaps a bit better than Vietnam, but not by much,” he said. 

Hun Sen’s government claims it is not angling to destroy the CNRP ahead of June’s commune election and next year’s general election. But a number of the reformed law’s conditions clearly intend to put the main opposition party in its legal crosshairs.

For example, political parties that lose their president must name a replacement within 90 days, one amendment states. Following Sam Rainsy’s recent resignation, the CNRP announced that it would delay naming its next president until the party’s general assembly, expected to be held next year.

Once the amended law is passed, acting president Kem Sokha will have to formally accept the party’s presidency. Kem Sokha was royally pardoned in December for criminal charges related to a “prostitution” case that was widely viewed as politically motivated by the CPP.

Cambodia's Prime Minister and president of the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) Hun Sen (centre) allows supporters to take selfies with him on January 7, 2017. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy
Cambodian Prime Minister and president of the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) Hun Sen (centre) allows supporters to take selfies with him. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

The government, however, could restart legal proceedings against him. If found guilty, Kem Sokha would also be compelled to resign from the CNRP to save it from dissolution, a prospect that would leave the already factionalized party at risk of a break-up.

Within the space of a few short months, Hun Sen’s government could force its leading opponents – Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha – out of politics for several years. Moreover, there is the possibility that the CNRP could be dissolved outright if deemed to have infringed upon any one of the vaguely worded amendments.

If the CNRP is dissolved before next year’s general election, there will be little point in holding the ballot, political commentators say. Although dozens of smaller opposition parties are legally registered, only the CNRP stands as a credible and viable alternative to the ruling CPP. At the last general election held in 2013, the third largest party, Funcinpec, won just 3.7% of the vote and no parliamentary seats.

The amendments represent to some analysts the most serious affront to Cambodian democracy since 1997, when the CPP led a bloody coup against the Funcinpec party it had formed a tenuous power-sharing agreement. The CPP has a political motivation to enter the 2018 election virtually unchallenged: only at the 2008 general election did the long-ruling party secure more than 50% of the popular vote.

The CPP lost 22 seats at the last election, leaving it with just 68 seats and a slim majority in the 123-member National Assembly. The CNRP, on the other hand, gained 26 seats, increasing its number of lawmakers to 55. Some analysts suspect if the CPP contested a free and fair election against the CNRP in 2018 it could lose power. 

“It’s no exaggeration to say that these amendments are like a gun aimed straight at the heart of the opposition CNRP,” Robertson said, “leaving only the question of when and on what grounds this political execution will take place.”

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