Earlier this month, Oum Savan visited the house of one of his children during lunch, but before touching his food he became preoccupied with his campaign for chief of Chhnok Tru Commune in the upcoming Commune and Sangkat Elections on June 5.
Oum Savan, a high school teacher in Baribour Town, quickly jotted down some demographic information about his constituency and some new talking points he developed to convince voters to support his candidacy for the Candlelight Party.
Campaigning for the polls officially began on May 21 and the revived opposition party is trying to launch a challenge to the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of Prime Minister Hun Sen. In recent years, the CPP has quelled democratic opposition, turning Cambodia into a de facto one-party state.
Oum Savan, 54, experienced political success before in the 2017 local elections, becoming second deputy commune chief for the Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP). But he served only four months after the CPP—spooked by the CNRP’s surprising win of 44 percent of the vote—instigated the Supreme Court in November 2017 to dissolve the CNRP ahead of the 2018 General Elections, or national parliamentary elections. CNRP leader Kem Sokha was arrested in September 2017.
Oum Savan said it was “very painful” to watch the CPP seize all CNRP parliament and commune council positions, yet he was encouraged by the electoral success and waited for a chance to compete again.
‘I had an urge to join them. I want to be back into politics’
“I wanted to help people in my commune, but I didn’t know what to do. So, when I learned the Candlelight Party was coming back after they had held a congress [in November 2021], I had an urge to join them. I want to be back into politics to get the power to serve people,” he told VOA Khmer.
Oum Savan said he wanted to address voters’ complaints over misgovernance, corruption, a lack of healthcare, and poor land rights in his commune, located south of the Tonle Sap Lake.
In nearby Trapaing Chhan Commune, Sngoun Samean, 61, said she beat the local CPP candidate in 2017 with 1,331 votes against 1,279, but served only “three months and twenty days” as CNRP commune chief.
She was keen to compete again to reclaim the office. “We were in a deadlock until late 2021. Now we have the Candlelight Party that we can rely on,” Sngoun Samean told VOA Khmer.
Across Cambodia, many ex-CNRP-ers have felt the same and have seized the chance to join the Candlelight Party. Party leaders said in March they mobilized 23,679 candidates to compete in almost all 1,652 communes and sangkats (municipal areas)—greatly outnumbering other opposition parties—and that they can build on the party’s old grassroots network and recognizability to challenge the CPP.
An opposition party revived
Opposition figure Sam Rainsy created the party in 1995 and it bore his name up until 2012, when it was mothballed as he joined forces with Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party to form the CNRP. After the 2017 crackdown, it was renamed the Candlelight Party, in an allusion to its familiar logo, which allowed it to keep distance from Sam Rainsy as he was convicted on what are seen as political charges.
The exiled Rainsy endorsed the Candlelight Party and wrote recently in an opinion article in The Diplomat that it was led by a “new generation of leaders” and having a “surprise impact.”
However, divisions emerged with Sokha, who has distanced himself from the Candlelight Party as he remains caught up in a court case. Most of his ex-CNRP followers have stayed on the sidelines, while a few created small parties, fracturing the opposition. A record 17 parties will compete.
Campaigning without their leader
At Candlelight Party rallies, which have become increasingly common since April and have been the first significant opposition gatherings in four years, leaders urged members to be confident of success even if they lacked their well-known leader.
In a recent social media video, Party Vice-President Son Chhay was seen telling a modest rally in Siem Reap: “Our courage these days is inspired by the founding president, Sam Rainsy. But what is next is on us!”
The veteran opposition politician returned to Cambodia in March and was among dozens of leading CNRP-ers banned from politics in 2017 until the government lifted the court order in 2020.
Oum Savan said he believed voters are also keen to support the re-emergence of the opposition party even if it was renamed and headed by second-tier leadership. “No matter whoever comes to lead the party instead of [Sam Rainsy], the party will always be recognized as a strong party,” he said.
Local harassment and undemocratic restrictions
Besides the absence of their leader, the Candlelight Party also faces significant challenges due to local harassment and undemocratic legal restrictions, while their resources are paltry compared to the ruling CPP.
Oum Savan said party offices only provided promotional material and he paid some $1,500 out of his own pocket to organize events and would have to spend more during the campaign period.
A pre-election report by the Asian Network for Free Elections (ANFREL) warned conditions were lacking for free and fair elections. A lack of independent media and civil society were hindering voter access to information and opportunities for local election monitoring. There have also been widespread reports of efforts to bribe or threaten opposition members into pulling out and to hinder their public presence.
The National Election Commission appeared to have a partisan bias towards the CPP government when it cancelled the Candlelight Party’s whole candidate lists in 26 communes as some candidates allegedly failed “Khmer literacy requirements,” according to ANFREL.
During a recent visit to Kampong Chhnang Province there were few public signs of the Candlelight Party or other opposition parties, while the CPP had a marked pre-campaign presence.
Local candidates said opposition signs were often pulled down and locals who placed them in their yards faced harassment from CPP supporters and state officials. They added that many Candlelight Party supporters who had offered to monitor the polls were pulling due to growing harassment.
Sngoun Samean said many locals still secretly signaled their support. “Young people strongly support me because they know very well about current situations and political contexts,” she said.
Noun Bopha, a Chhnok Tru Commune civil servant and father of four college-going children, said he thought the repression had reduced local voters’ interest and weakened the opposition and its community engagement.
“It’s not like before, they are scared of their own safety, and their family too… I’m worried that the [Candlelight Party] has fewer activists now [than the CNRP],” Noun Bopha said, adding that he would support the party, but that it would probably fare significantly worse than the CNRP in 2017.
Local Candlelight Party candidates, nonetheless, remained defiant in the face of the challenges and the risk of another crackdown if they do score an election victory.
“It’s OK if they rob our seats once, or twice, or a hundred times. As long as the Candlelight [Party] win[s] and I am elected, I will keep standing for the commune chief candidacy until we have justice in our country for our local people,” Sngoun Samean said.