Candlelight party rally

No surprise to learn that, in the wake of the game-changing election victory in next door Thailand, the government of Cambodia, led by Prime Minister Hun Sen, has disqualified the opposition Candlelight party from running in the July election. The official reason: Candlelight officials did not correctly fill in the forms.

At Opposition International, a nonprofit established for and about the rights and responsibilities of opposition political parties, we should respond. It was said of Joseph Conrad, “ We could pardon his cheerless themes were it not for the Imperturbable solemnity with which he piles the unnecessary on the commonplace.” (1898)

The default position would be to accept the ban at face value. Forms must be filled in correctly. The same in Cambodia as anywhere else. However, the Cambodian government has spent the last year harassing opposition leaders, levying fines on the Candlelight party, and creating new requirements for political parties to contest the election. Currently no party but the Cambodia People’s Party holds a seat.

We offer a caveat. Opposition International does not support any one single opposition party, and that includes the Candlelight party. We support the concept of the Opposition as realized through competition among political parties. We advocate for their rights to organize, participate in elections, and offer criticisms of the government.

The Opposition is the political accountability which the media and NGOs, as valuable as they are, cannot provide. Ideally, the Opposition does more than just challenge the government’s mandate. It helps the legislature as a whole to understand fully the costs and benefits of the government’s proposed policies and spending.

The responsibility of the Opposition is to keep an eye on the money. Financial scrutiny lives at the heart of the government opposition relationship. Without the Opposition’s objections, any government would be tempted by grand schemes and personal advantage.

Disputes over money led to the Rise of the Opposition in a story from the Magna Carta to Gladstone and Disraeli. As in King Lear, had the king listen to Cordelia, he would have realized that bequeathing land and titles does not guarantee a peaceful retirement.

In Cambodia, well-developed networks of citizen organisations have supplied evidence that the lack of accountability has led to a squandering of natural resources, displacement of aboriginal populations, and environmental degradation, particularly in the Mekong River basin. Absent the restraint of the Opposition, the government may commit Cambodians to pay for activities that unintentionally degrade their livelihoods.

There is no disrespect in asking the government to answer questions and to account for new spending and loans. Cambodians have by the terms of the “social contract” the right to question who is responsible for debts incurred without democratic license. The bankers’ view is that sovereign debt carries over from one government to the next. In the absence of effective democracy, that attitude is due to be revisited.

The rights enumerated in the Sustainable Development Goals 16 process justify a range of actions. They should include a “democratic audit” of multilateral and bilateral financial obligations generated under a democracy-divergent administration.

Without instruments and institutions of accountability, including that of a Opposition, social consent to further state financial obligations may be deemed uncertain.

The price to be paid for suppressing the legitimate duties of the Opposition…should be clear.