Bumpy Path Ahead for Under-Pressure Candlelight Party

3 min read
Candlelight Party rally in Phnom Penh on May 21, 2022. (Andrew Haffner/VOD)

As the Candlelight Party faces an onslaught of lawsuits and violent threats, a party official said they were moving ahead with preparations for the July election, with analysts predicting a bumpy path to the ballot box for the primary opposition threat to Hun Sen. 

The Candlelight Party has faced an obstacle course of political persecution: lawsuits against senior adviser Kong Korm for incitement and occupying state land, $1 million in defamation damages against party vice president Son Chhay, the arrest of leader Thach Setha in a check bouncing case, and threats of outright violence from Prime Minister Hun Sen who decreed zero tolerance for criticism of the ruling party.

Faced with mounting pressure now — unlike in the run up to the commune election when the persecution they faced was less vitriolic — the party briefly mentioned considering a boycott of the national election in July.

But Lee Sothearayuth, the party’s secretary-general, said it was unavoidable for the party to participate in the upcoming election and that the party was reinforcing itself from the grassroots up.

“We act every day and instill our position and strengthen the spirit of our members and activists. We have a monthly action plan and a three-month action plan until the election,” he said.

The party met with senior provincial officials on Monday with attendees saying the senior leadership suggested they tone down the rhetoric and try to ease political tensions with the ruling party. Commune officials from the party last week expressed displeasure with the party’s decision to retract a statement that criticized the ruling party for persecuting the opposition.

Political commentator Em Sovannara said it was unlikely the government would move to dissolve Candlelight because it was not yet the threat the Cambodia National Rescue Party was before it was dissolved.

“There are more challenges ahead but there is also opportunity,” he said.

He said the party would have to be careful in how to criticize the government or ruling party, and instead talk about the shortcomings of administration and unfulfilled promises.

Sovannara added that Candlelight could continue to focus on pushing for reforms in the National Election Committee and try to return the status quo to 2017 when the body was more bipartisan.

Kim Sok, another political analyst who is living in exile, said if Candlelight went into a shell then it would lose the trust of its supporters who were hoping the party would challenge the ruling party.

“The opposition party cannot stop criticizing the ruling party. If they stop criticizing them, it will amount to losing the title as a political competitor,” he said.

The more the opposition cowers to the CPP, the more they will be at the whims of the ruling party, he added.

Som Sorida, an NEC spokesperson, said the government was working to make the political environment healthy and that politics had matured in Cambodia.

“I would like to appeal to related political parties, please implement your duties by following the law. Only by following the law can we strengthen the rule of law in Cambodia,” he said.

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