Is Cambodia’s New Election Amendment Actually About ‘Pardoning’ Exiled Opposition Leaders?

Changes to election laws will give Prime Minister Hun Sen added room for maneuver as he prepares to hand power to his son, Hun Manet.

On June 23, Cambodia’s National Assembly approved a hastily-drafted amendment to the country’s election law that will prohibit anyone who doesn’t vote in next month’s general election from running as a candidate in future elections. Prospective candidates, the amendment says, must have voted in at least the two elections immediately prior to running for office.

The logic behind this amendment is obvious. Hun Sen wants to use July’s general election as a referendum on his plan to hand over power to his eldest son, Hun Manet. Because there are still some jitters within the ruling party about this succession and Hun Sen wants to give it a “democratic” veneer, a large voter turnout will be used by the Cambodian leader to claim that it confers legitimacy on the process. A low voter turnout, however, would cast doubt on how much the public agrees with his plans. At worst, it could inspire a mutiny within the CPP ranks against the whole succession plan. Less extreme, it would be a bad start for a Manet administration, which could transpire in August. Moreover, Hun Sen wants to depart the premiership, after almost four decades in the job, with some fanfare, regardless of whether that electoral round of applause is fear-induced.

Perhaps Hun Sen has been planning this all along, but the timing of the amendment does appear suspect. He first raised the issue in public during a speech on June 12, just weeks before the July 23 election. Granted, he knows that any law he proposes will be hastily rushed through parliament. But why leave it so late? Perhaps it was simply the last-minute way of preventing low voter turnout, as most of the commentary around it seems to believe.

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