Is Cambodia a One Party State?

Is Cambodia a one party state? This is something that can largely depend on your perspective, but while there is only one party in the main parliament, Cambodia is classified as a one party-dominant state, rather than a one party state.

What is the difference between a one party state and one party-dominant state? Essentially a one-party state only allows one party, whilst a one party dominant state allows plural democracy, has multiple parties, but is dominated by one particularly party. Examples of this include Angola, South Africa, Singapore and formerly even Japan.

Who are the main party in Cambodia?

Cambodia has been governed by the Cambodian Peoples Party in various guises since either 1975, or 1979, depending on your take on things. This difference in dates is due to the Kampuchean Peoples Revolutionary Party, which dates back to 1951 being the forebears of the Communist Party of Kampuchea.

The difference comes from the group that overthrew the Khmer Rouge tracing their lineage back to the 1951 party, while the Khmer Rouge date their formation to the 1960 change in name from the Kampuchean Peoples Revolutionary Party to the Workers Party of Kampuchea. The Workers Party of Kampuchea would later change its name to the Communist Party of Kampuchea at the behest of its main benefactor China.

To read about the Workers Party of Kampuchea click here.

Flag of Democratic Kampuchea

If we take 1979 and the government of the Kampuchean Peoples Revolutionary Party as the start of the current regime, then as of 2013 they have been in non-stop governance for 44 years, with Prime-Minister Hun Sen in charge of government for almost 40 of those years.

From 1979-89/93 Cambodia was a one-party socialist state under Soviet patronage.

Is Cambodia a one party state? The Transition to Democracy

In 1992 Cambodia became the first and so far only country to be taken over by the United Nations – namely under UNTAC. This ushered in a peace process which led to the elections of 1993, which were boycotted by the Khmer Rouge.

To read about UNTAC click here.

The elections were for all intents a “draw” between FUNCINPEC – the Royalist Party who had been fighting WITH the Khmer Rouge and the CPP. And while there was initially unrest and the country almost splitting into three parts the new King Sihanouk managed a compromise whereby the there would be two Prime-Minister, Hun Sen of the CPP and the recently deceased Prince Norodom Ranariddh, son of the king.

This was around the backdrop of the Khmer Rouge retreating to their least state around the border of Thailand, the continuing civil war, and both parties courting the Khmer Rouge and their formidable army as allies.

To read about the last Khmer Rouge state click here.

The 1997 Cambodian Civil War

Whilst often referred to as the 1997 Cambodian Coup, in reality it was a civil war which lasted from July until September. FUNCINPEC who has increasingly been losing power started to court the Khmer Rouge more, with various senior figures defecting, some to the CPP, while others threw their lot in with FUNCINPEC.

We will not analyze the 1997 Cambodian Civil War here, but the end result was the capitulation of the opposition, the beginning of the end of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge and essentially the last time that Cambodia had what we would term as multiparty democracy. 

To read about Pol Pot click here

The Cambodian Opposition Since 1997

To say that the Cambodian opposition has been featured since 1997 would be doing it a great disservice, with the main threat on power coming from the Sam Rainsey Party. Said party was named after the aforementioned Sam Rainsey and American-Cambodian who whilst a darling of the west, was also quite vocal about his disliking of the Vietnamese, sadly a very easy way to rattle people in Cambodia.

They came closest to power in 2013 as the Cambodian National Rescue Party when they gained 55 of the 123 seats available in parliament. Despite gaining so many seats they refused to take them up in parliament until electoral reform was made, which did not happen and then things snowballed into various opposition leaders being jailed, a boycott and the 2018 election having no credible opposition. As things stand the CPP control all 122 seats in parliament. 

The Candlelight Party and the 2023 Elections

One of the stranger things about Cambodia is the public displaying of political signs as you go through the country, fairly unique in how it is done, but also showing just how many political parties there are,  and there are a lot.

Cambodia a One Party State

One sign that is often seen now is that of the Candlelight Party, which Rainsy has said is a continuation in all, but name of the party he with full of pride named after himself. 

Therefore the Candlelight Party are expected to be and will likely be the main opposition in the 2023 elections, which according to the CPP and indeed government people I have spoken to will be held under international standards, with foreign observers. 

Quite how well they will do though is yet to be seen, as whilst they are darlings of the west the CPP still retain huge popularity.

What do Cambodians think about being a one party state?

 There is of course no one size fits all answer to this, but generally speaking not only do Cambodians not necessarily see themselves as a one party state, the government are popular and they simply have other concerns.

No one alive in Cambodia today was not affected in at least some way the reign of the Khmer Rouge and the international isolation incurred during the time of the Peoples Republic of Kampuchea.

To read about the Peoples Republic of Kampuchea click here.

What most people hold dear is the freedom to make money and stability. Cambodia has averaged a growth rate of 7.7 percent (pre-Covid) and is now in its longest period of peace for perhaps a hundred years. 

This stability is not just huge for investors, but also for average Cambodians, who favour this over the abstract western concept of “democracy”. The west do not realize that countries such as Timor-Leste, who drank the western cool aid actually look up to Cambodia as a model of one-party stability. This was echoed to me by a Timorese official who told me “We had 15 people run for President in a country of 1.3 million people, some of whom did not even have a job. This is a ridiculous situation and we need the ability that Cambodia has in order to grow”.

And who do Cambodia look up to? They look to places such as China, Vietnam and Singapore as then bastions of growth, rather than western style democracy.

So, is Cambodia a one party state? Yes and no, but to most people in the country it is a question they don’t feel the need to ask, or answer.