Kong Monika (C), leader of the Khmer Will Party, speaks to supporters in Phnom Penh during the first day of campaigning for the general election on July 7, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Kong Monika (C), leader of the Khmer Will Party, speaks to supporters in Phnom Penh during the first day of campaigning for the general election on July 7, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Hang, a tuk tuk driver, is momentarily distracted from his smartphone as a rally of political supporters trundle down a main thoroughfare in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital.

“I don’t know who they are,” he says when asked if he recognizes the party’s name, the Grassroots Democracy Party (GDP). When pressed on his opinion of the upcoming election to be held on July 29, he sums up a prevailing mood of the country: “I don’t know. I’m not interested this time.”

Apathy, anger and fear now epitomize the feelings of many Cambodian voters. The country’s main opposition party, which came close to winning the last general election in 2013, won’t be on the ballot, while the government has effectively silenced many media and civil society groups.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was formally dissolved by the Supreme Court in November after being accused of trying to orchestrate a “color revolution” supposedly aimed at toppling Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government.

Many of its politicians were banned from politics for five years and have since gone into exile, following the path of party co-founder Sam Rainsy who fled the country in late 2015 to escape numerous political charges against him. CNRP president Kem Sokha is in jail on what many view as trumped up treason charges.

Despite the fact that its only viable opponent won’t contest the election, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) claims that the presence of 19 small, mostly newly formed parties on this month’s ballot proves Cambodia is still committed to multiparty democracy, an assessment most international observers contest.

Most of the small parties are obscure and lack a nationwide platform. None has polled well in recent elections.

Funcinpec, a royalist party that shared power with the CPP until it was ousted in a 1997 coup, came in third place five years ago with just 3.6% of the vote. The League for Democracy Party (LDP) won roughly 1% of the popular vote and came in fourth. Neither won enough votes to take a seat in parliament.

“The LDP is already the only opposition party in Cambodia, but the problem is the people in this country are too ignorant to know about us,” says Khem Veasna, president of the LDP.

Supporters of Cambodian People's Party (CPP) parade in an open truck during the first day of campaign in Phnom Penh for the general election on July 7, 2018.Cambodian political parties on Saturday kicked off a three-week-long campaign for a controversial general election later this month, which strongman Hun Sen is poised to sweep after the main opposition were disbanded and their senior members driven into self-exile. / AFP PHOTO / TANG CHHIN Sothy
Supporters of Cambodian People’s Party in an open truck during the first day of campaigning for the general election in Phnom Penh on July 7, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

The CPP, bossed by the world’s longest serving prime minister, Hun Sen, is all but guaranteed to win the election, possibly taking all seats in the National Assembly. It has already secured all but four seats in Cambodia’s upper house after Senate elections in February in which CNRP candidates were not on the ballot.

“Now faced with 19 non-ruling parties but no CNRP do you expect anything close to a legitimate outcome?” says Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College at Los Angeles.

Rhona Smith, the United Nation’s special rapporteur on Cambodia, has said the election won’t be legitimate. America and the European Union have withdrawn funding of the ballot and won’t send monitors in protest against Hun Sen’s anti-democratic clampdown.

Although Phnom Penh claims there will be 30,000 monitors present this month, many are from undemocratic nations like China and Singapore.

Another problem is that Cambodia’s voting system, which has used the proportional representation “d’Hondt” method since 1998, favors larger parties. “Winning a seat in Cambodia’s National Assembly is highly unlikely for smaller political parties,” reads a 2017 report by Future Forum, a local think tank.

Opprobrium has naturally been directed at the ruling CPP for all of this, but some of the minor parties have also faced criticism from certain personalities who think their participation will only sustain the façade of a legitimate election.

Sam Rainsy, who was CNRP president until he was forced to step down in early 2017, has mocked them as “firefly parties” and “puppet parties,” either because of their apparent ephemerality or because, some allege, they receive funding from the CPP.

Indeed, it was Pich Sros, of the Cambodian Youth Party, who first initiated the legal proceedings that brought down the CNRP last year.

Supporters of President of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) attend a campaign rally in Phnom Penh, Cambodia June 2, 2017. REUTERS/Samrang Pring - RTX38NZ3
Cambodia National Rescue Party supporters attend a campaign rally before the party was dissolved, June 2, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

“Taking part in a sham election is giving Hun Sen the chance he desperately needs. It’s not the number of parties that participate; it’s the fact that the July 29 election is fully designed by Hun Sen,” says Mu Sochua, a CNRP vice president who is now in exile. “How do these parties contribute to the advancement of democracy if not to rubber stamp a sham election?” she added.

The CNRP has called for an electoral boycott in the hope of embarrassing the CPP with low voter turnout figures, and there are indications that the campaign is gaining traction among voters.

But just as boycott supporters say it’s their constitutional right not to vote – despite threats by the government that it will be treated as a criminal offense – minor parties say it’s their constitutional right to participate in the election.

“If voters stay home and boycott the election, the authoritarian [government] will absolutely continue to grip onto power for another five years. The Cambodian people will continue to suffer and be victims of land grabbing, human rights abuses and intimidation,” says Kong Monika, president of the Khmer Will Party (KWP).

Supporters of Khmer Will Party (KWP) parade in the street of Phnom Penh during the first day of campaign for the general election on July 7, 2018. Photo: AFP/ Tang Chhin Sothy
Khmer Will Party supporters parade in Phnom Penh during the first day of campaigning for the general election on July 7, 2018. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

“The KWP will definitely win this election if voters prefer real democracy and are eager to change,” added Monika, the son of former senior CNRP advisor Kong Korm. He has estimated that as many as 60% of his party’s candidates were previously CNRP members.

Other small party leaders are likewise optimistic. Officials from the decade-old Khmer Anti-Poverty Party (KAPP) have told local media that their party has more than one million supporters. To be sure, similar boasts were made at previous elections only to be proven wrong at the ballot box; the KAPP party won only 0.65% of the vote at the 2013 general election.

Still, some of the new entrants have intriguing pedigrees. Pothitey Sawathey, president of the newly formed Dharmacracy Party, decided to enter the political fray after a spirit told her to do so, she says; it also apparently pitched the party’s name and manifesto, the New York Times reported.

Others are looking to turn around their fates. Nhek Bun Chhay, of the Khmer National United Party (KNUP), spent months in prison on drug-related charges before being released in April.

The royalist Funcinpec party has been mostly irrelevant since the early 2000s, though it was handed 41 parliamentary seats when the CNRP’s seats were redistributed in November. Its president, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, has spent the last month in a Thai hospital after suffering injuries in a car crash; his wife passed away in the same accident.

Prince Norodom Ranariddh gestures during an interview at his home in central Phnom Penh, Cambodia on October 14, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring
Prince Norodom Ranariddh during an interview at his home in central Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on October 14, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

But between Panglossian outlooks and outright eccentricity, there’s a certain logic to the some of the smaller parties. Many of their leaders say Cambodian politics needs to progress away from the rut dug by battles between the CPP and CNRP or, more still, from the historic clash between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy. With that view, most of these parties embrace so-called third-wayism.

Some of the smaller parties have also developed rather progressive policy programs. The LDP, for instance, would limit prime ministers to two terms in office and transfer the power of promoting military and police officials to parliament, which would prevent the domination of one party over the military.

The GDP, which has produced a 125-point policy program, would also set term limits on political offices as well as introducing a universal health care plan and developing Cambodia’s agricultural sector. Three of the smaller parties pledge to release political prisoners, including CNRP president Kem Sokha, if they win the election.

Estimating the electoral appeal of the smaller parties is almost impossible given the domination of politics by the CPP and CNRP in recent years. At the last election in 2013, they took 93% of the popular vote and won all National Assembly seats. What remains to be seen is how the CNRP’s 2.9 million voters from the last election will ballot this month – if they vote at all.

One major problem is that the smaller groups lack the financial resources of the two grand parties. Most have only a tenth, if not less, of the CPP’s budget for campaigning.

The Cambodian Youth Party, which is thought to have around 20,000 members, has set aside US$70,000 for the campaign period, while the Dharmacracy Party has little more than US$20,000 to campaign, according to local reports.

Cambodia's Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) poses for a picture during a ceremony at a compound of factories in Phnom Penh on September 6, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen (C) poses for a picture during a ceremony at a compound of factories in Phnom Penh on September 6, 2017. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

The CPP, meanwhile, has reportedly set aside US$1 million for the 21-day campaign season which started last weekend. But Hun Sen has spent months touring the country’s garment factories, whose workers have typically voted CNRP at past elections.

There, he has doled out more than US$3.5 million from the state budget in handouts to workers, each receiving roughly US$5 – or US$100 for those who are pregnant – for attending his speeches, local media reports.

Human Rights Watch, a rights lobbying group, recently alleged that high-ranking members of the military have participated in CPP rallies before and during the 21-day campaign period, which if true would be a violation of the constitution.

Most smaller parties also cannot afford to field observers on election day. Roughly 50,000 party-affiliated monitors have signed up to assess the July 29 ballot but most are from the CPP, according to the National Election Committee (NEC), the official election body. Only Funcinpec, the KNUP and the LDP have so far reportedly provided the body with numbers of their observers.

“These small parties seem to be more of a charade opposition because none of them has the infrastructure, money, wherewithal, or even will, to really oppose the CPP,” says Paul Chambers, a lecturer at the College of Asean Community Studies at Naresuan University in Thailand.

Some smaller party members admit they have little chance of winning this year’s election, but say they are preparing the ground for the next general election in 2023. Their goal, it appears, is to take the CNRP’s place as the main opposition party post-election.

While some analysts rebuff the outlook as optimistic at best, it’s clear that Cambodian politics has entered into a new phase, one in which the CNRP will almost certainly not play a part.

A man uses his smartphone to take picture from a television conference of Sam Rainsy, former President of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), during a Buddhist ceremony commemorating the victims of a grenade attack on March 30, 1997, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring
A man uses his smartphone to take a picture from a television conference of former CNRP president Sam Rainsy. Photo: Reuters/Samrang Pring

By calling for an electoral boycott, CNRP leaders in exile hope that low voter turnout will delegitimize the CPP’s expected victory. This would either foment some internal power struggle within the CPP, perhaps with a more progressive leader coming to the fore, or prompt the international community to impose even stiffer sanctions that force the government to reverse its anti-democratic course, analysts say.

European Union delegates this week ended a seven-day fact-finding tour of the country, the point of which is to decide whether to suspend Cambodia from its “Everything But Arms” scheme, which grants tariff and tax free status to Cambodian exports to Europe.

If suspended, analysts say, the extra financial burden would likely cripple the country’s important garment sector and cause a domino effect of unemployment and strife throughout the economy.

The CNRP’s exiled leaders hope that external and internal pressure will make the CPP government change its ways, though the ruling party has recently said this is impossible, however. But if the so-called “clean finger” boycott isn’t successful and the CPP wins with a respectable voter turnout, it’s almost certain the CNRP won’t be reinstated.

In this scenario, another party must take its place if Cambodia is to have oppositional politics. Some CNRP politicians, including those who were banned from politics for five years, might be tempted to defect to the CPP. Others, as has already been the case, might decide to join some of the smaller political parties.

Such a change isn’t unprecedented in recent Cambodian history. In the late 1990s, Funcinpec was the second-largest party but quickly lost that place to the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), one of the two parties that formed the CNRP in 2012.

Cambodians cast their vote in the general elections before closing time in the Veal Sbou village, Kandal province, 27 July 2003. Cambodia's national elections passed virtually without incident with Prime Minister Hun Sen likely to retain power, as the country moved a step closer to a more mature democracy and further away from its grim past. AFP PHOTO/ Kem SOVANNARA / AFP PHOTO / CAMBODGE SOIR / KHEM SOVANNARA
People cast their votes in a previous general election. Photo: AFP/Kem Sovannara

At the 1998 election, Funcinpec took 31% of the popular vote and the SRP around 14%. Five years later, both parties shared about a fifth of the vote.

By 2008, however, Funcinpec fell further down the pecking order as the Human Rights Party, the other party that formed the CNRP, came in third place with 6% of the vote. It was the first election that the CPP won with more than 50% of the popular vote.

During the 1990s and 2000s, Cambodia always had three main parties, two of which traded places as the largest opposition group. But the 2013 election was the first when a third party failed to win any seats in parliament, with all going to either the CPP or CNRP.

This lack of an alternative was problematic for many reasons, not least because it meant that opposition hopes depended solely on one party’s success, which made it easier for the government to it tear down, analysts say.

But if smaller parties are setting their sights on life post-election and building momentum for 2023, they might be over-optimistic, says Sophal Ear. He reckons there is nothing to stop the CPP from dissolving a new opponent just as it dissolved the CNRP. “If they still think this is a legitimate race, they’re dreaming.”