Amid alleged pressure against its candidates, the opposition Candlelight Party asked the question at a party congress in Phnom Penh on Sunday: “Will Candlelight join the election or not?”
“If you think we must join, please raise your hand,” party deputy Son Chhay asked a few hundred gathered members on a lot in northern Phnom Penh. A few hundred others, unable to fit in the venue, waited outside in coffee shops and rice fields.
“Hundred percent again. Absolutely 100%. The Candlelight Party is 100% for people to believe 100%. We will join the election,” Chhay said.
The late declaration of the party’s commitment came amid alleged persecution — threats against candidates to stand down, and nominee lists being revoked in some communes due to irregularities. Candlelight nevertheless still has the most candidates outside the ruling CPP, effectively becoming the de facto party of choice for many former activists of the outlawed CNRP.
Candlelight Party secretary-general Ly Sothearayut said the party was working against pressure and obstruction in many forms. It regretted it had only been able to secure election observers in about 80 percent of the country’s 1,652 communes, Sothearayut said.
“Candlelight has faced threats, suffered from political harassment, political persecution, especially at the hands of local officials and some powerful people,” he said.
Pal Kep, a Candlelight commune chief candidate in Koh Kong, is being sued by six CPP lawyers for defamation, incitement to commit felony, forging of a document and an election violation.
But it was important that he remain undeterred ahead of the June 5 vote, Kep said.
“Keep the court’s lawsuit to one side. The campaign is moving forward. Don’t worry about my possible arrest someday; I’ve already told my colleagues that if I’m jailed there’s no problem — continue as usual. Win every commune.”
CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan could not be reached on Sunday, but a government statement issued last week noted there were many allegations of political restrictions ahead of the June election, but few exact dates and locations.
The claims of political persecution were unsubstantiated and merely political provocations, the statement said.
Hang Puthea, spokesperson for the National Election Committee, said on Sunday that the Candlelight Party’s commitment to contest the June election showed confidence in the electoral process, and echoed the government’s statement that the party should back up allegations with evidence.
Political commentator Ly Sreysrors said the party’s decision to participate likely reflected the experience of the 2018 national election, when the lack of any significant opposition party following the main opposition CNRP’s dissolution allowed the CPP to win every seat in the National Assembly.
Candlelight would likely win at least some seats in June, but it was difficult to predict how many considering how hamstrung the party was with lack of resources and outside pressures, Sreysros added.
“We know that with the commune chief candidates, there are still a lot of problems. At the same time, the NEC seems to be very restrictive of the Candlelight Party’s candidates,” Sreysros said. “There is still hope for some seats, but I cannot answer how many.”