Cambodia has disqualified the country’s main opposition party for its second consecutive parliamentary election, eliminating the only credible challenge to Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party.
The country’s National Elections Commission on Monday refused to register the party, the Candlelight Party, for a general election scheduled for July, citing that it failed to file the required paperwork and was therefore ineligible to run in the contest.
Mr Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party currently holds all 125 seats in parliament after government-controlled courts disbanded its main challenger, the Cambodian National Salvation Party, or CNRP, ahead of the 2018 elections. The Candlelight Party, with many of the same members, took its place.
Members of the opposition party said they would appeal the election commission’s ruling. After the CNRP was dissolved in 2017, Mr Hun Sen has taken action on several fronts to neutralize the remaining opposition. Government-controlled courts have convicted about 100 opposition figures on treason and other charges, imprisoned some and forced several leaders to flee into exile.
The most prominent opposition figure remaining in Cambodia, Kem Sokha, was tried on charges of treason and sentenced to 27 years of house arrest in March. In February, the government shut down a popular news outlet, Voice of Democracy, alleging it published a false report. It was one of the few surviving publications to provide critical coverage of the government.
The United Nations Human Rights Commission said at the time that “these actions seriously undermine the social and political space, including the climate for free and fair elections in July.” Last month, Human Rights Watch accused the Cambodian government of intensifying verbal attacks that had led to violent attacks against members of the Candlelight Party.
“Dismantling opposition parties and disqualifying, beating and arresting their members before election day means there will be no real elections at all,” it said in a statement.
Members of the Candlelight Party said the Election Commission had demanded original copies of official party documents, which they say they no longer have after they were seized during a police raid in 2017.
After her ruling, the Election Commission said it had approved the registration of more than 10 other parties. Among these parties were those aligned with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, or small, obscure parties that pose no serious electoral challenge to the prime minister.
Mr Hun Sen, 70, has been in power for 38 years and eliminated the opposition through the courts, electoral manipulation, violence and intimidation and a coup in 1997. He has anointed his eldest son, army chief Hun Manet, to succeed him. and has indicated that the family’s transfer of power will follow this year’s elections in July.
“This is a very dangerous year for Hun Sen,” Sam Rainsy, a prominent opposition leader, wrote from exile in an essay published online earlier this month. “It’s the year he decided to create a political dynasty right after the election,” he wrote.