Gang of four: Cambodia's new political parties

Four new political parties have entered the fray in Cambodia since the start of the year. And it’s not just the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party in their sights, but the opposition too

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October 1, 2015
Gang of four: Cambodia's new political parties

Mam Sonando is disappointed. The independent journalist and director of Beehive radio station was once a staunch supporter of Cambodia’s largest opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). He even campaigned for them on his radio station during the 2013 elections. Today, however, he says he has lost faith in the party and in its two leaders, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha.

Mam Sonando, Beehive Social Democratic Party. Illustration: May Sak

“The CNRP’s supporters, like myself, feel disappointed because the party has not followed what they promised. We no longer feel the CNRP represents the people’s wishes,” Mam Sonando said. He has a long list of criticisms: the CNRP “went against what the people wanted” by accepting the 2013 electoral result; the so-called ‘culture of dialogue’ between the CNRP and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) has made the parties “too close”; the CNRP’s leaders are no longer “interested in the people, only power”. Because of this, the 73-year-old recently resurrected the Beehive Social Democratic Party (BSDP), a political party he had founded in the late 1990s that folded after not winning any seats in the 1998 election.

The BSDP is one of four new political parties that have been created in Cambodia this year. According to prominent members of each of them, disaffection with the CNRP is one of the main motivations behind their formations.

Lak Sopheap had been a member of the opposition since 1995, when she joined Sam Rainsy’s first political party, the Khmer National Party. By 2014, she had risen through the ranks to become personal assistant to the CNRP’s vice-president, Kem Sokha. However, in December that year, she was expelled from and publicly scolded by the party.

Lak Sopheap had made a startling allegation. She told local media at the time that, during a meeting with Kem Sokha, he informed her that Sam Rainsy had embezzled $20m from the party. When we met in a local coffee shop in Phnom Penh last month, the 56-year-old said that Kem Sokha had actually accused Sam Rainsy of taking $40m. After her initial allegations were made public, a spokesperson for the CNRP denied them, and Kem Sokha claimed that it was Lak Sopheap who had made the allegations against Sam Rainsy.

Lak Sopheap, Khmer Solidarity Party. Illustration: May Sak

“I couldn’t stay with the CNRP,” Lak Sopheap told Southeast Asia Globe. “We were always under the umbrella of the two leaders. They discriminate against others and only trust their inner circle. I feel they never think about national interests, just their own power.” In April, she said, a donor from the US – she would not say who – came to meet her to discuss starting a new party. A few months later, she co-founded the Khmer Solidarity Party.

The Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP) is another that formed this year. Its roots lay with the creation of the ‘Khmer for Khmer’ advocacy group, which was founded last year by several prominent political analysts and NGO leaders. “Cambodia has made great efforts to adopt a democratic society, but somehow the process has faced many challenges, and we have seen the old-style politicians of the CPP and CNRP still apply a very top-down approach,” said Sam Inn, who was elected the GDP’s secretary general in August. “That’s why we think we need to create a new party with a different leadership approach – more grassroots – which could be a good democratic model.”

However, as preparations were underway to create the GDP last October, the CNRP’s deputy director of public affairs, and daughter of Kem Sokha, Kem Monovithya, wrote a Facebook post claiming that the new party would split the opposition.

“[They] will create a party on the pretext that the CNRP has not succeeded with reforms,” she wrote. “This is their political right; it’s only that doing it will create no benefit and will break the image of solidarity among democrats.”

Indeed, there have been numerous indictments of the four new parties, with claims that they will split the opposition, thereby strengthening the CPP, or, worse, that they are being used by the CPP to weaken the opposition CNRP.

“Hun Sen has historically taken advantage of small parties competing with each other… and if there is any chance these parties can wrangle seats away from the CNRP, it greatly improves the chances of the CPP hanging onto power at the next election,” said Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia. Last year, he added, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, the leader of the royalist political party Funcinpec, was “brought out of retirement by Hun Sen to wrestle back whatever is left of the royal attraction to win a few seats and siphon off the opposition vote”.

However, Mam Sonando does not accept that he is being used to split the CNRP, and Sam Inn questioned the logic of the accusation: “If the CNRP is strong, there’s no reason to be fearful. If the CNRP is fearful, it means something’s wrong.”

Most of the new parties’ leaders expressed a similar sentiment: if the CNRP truly wants to bring democracy to Cambodia, then they should welcome the growth of a multi-party system. “Democratic countries have many parties,” Mam Sonando said. “So this is a good thing. It will strengthen our country’s love of democracy.”

Despite numerous attempts, a CNRP spokesperson could not be reached for comment on the issue. However, in May, Kem Sokha met with the party faithful to warn supporters against turning to the smaller parties. “Do not break our forces; do not break our spirit to argue with this one or that one,” local media reported him as saying. “I would like to call for us to meet on only one battlefield [so we can] win to lead the country in the upcoming election.” If supporters do break away, Kem Sokha warned that it would be impossible to take power from the CPP.

Political analyst Ou Virak pointed out that if the smaller parties want to win supporters they must quickly come up with their own political platforms and “differentiate themselves from the crowd”. When each of the leaders was asked about policies, most answered with vague statements. Mam Sonando said that his party will “fulfil the wishes of the people”, and Lak Sopheap said her party will work “for the people” and defend Cambodia against “aggression from foreign countries”. She was not specific about which countries pose a threat. However, she was quick to point out that they are still in the planning stages and have yet to iron out clear political platforms. Sam Inn said as much, stating that the GDP has “not yet completed its political platform”.

Sourn Serey Ratha, Khmer Power Party, Cambodia, politics
Sourn Serey Ratha, Khmer Power Party. Illustration: May Sak

The only leader who was able to provide any clear policies was Sourn Serey Ratha. In 2013, Sourn Serey Ratha’s Khmer People Power Movement was branded a terrorist organisation by the government, and Sourn Serey Ratha, who had fled the country, was sentenced in absentia to seven years in prison on charges of treason. The charge related to a Facebook post written before the 2013 election in which he called on the armed forces to turn their weapons against “the despot”, meaning Hun Sen. However, in July, Sourn Serey Ratha was pardoned by Cambodia’s king, supposedly at the request of Hun Sen. Within a week he had formed the Khmer Power Party (KPP).

If elected, he said by telephone from his current home in Thailand, the KPP would allow Cambodians living abroad to vote, blacklist all Vietnamese living in Cambodia illegally and impose a limit on the number of times a candidate can run for the prime ministership to two. This would put an end to one person ruling Cambodia for decades, as Hun Sen has done, or an opposition leader competing for the top spot numerous times, as Sam Rainsy has done four times since 1998.

Even if the new parties are able to concoct viable policies, it would be no guarantee of support in the commune elections in 2017 or the general election the following year. At the last general election, in 2013, the CNRP won 55 seats in the national assembly, compared to the CPP’s 68. None of the other six parties that secured votes won a seat.

“[The four new parties] have just started out… so in the coming years we will see whether they are important or not,” said Koul Panha, an executive director at the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel). “Every five years, we have many new, younger voters, and maybe they will vote for the new parties. In the years before the 2013 election, we didn’t know how many young people would vote for the CNRP, but then we saw many do so.”

Yeng Virak, Grassroots Democratic Party. Illustration: May Sak

It remains to be seen how the new parties will affect Cambodian politics. As the leaders claim, their presence is positive for the country’s multi-party democracy. However, Cambodia already has more than 40 political parties, most of which do not have the funds to compete in elections. In the 2013 election, the five minor political parties – who were not the CPP, CNRP or Funcinpec – collectively received only 3% of the vote, according to Comfrel’s Annual Democracy Report 2014.

“I think that maybe you’ll see two or three parties really challenging [in 2018] but not four or more,” Ou Virak said. However, he added, if the smaller parties did weaken the CNRP and it does not win a majority, he cannot see how the CNRP could continue in its current form after the election.

The CNRP seems confident that will not happen. Ou Chanrith, a spokesperson for the party, told the Cambodia Daily in August: “I don’t think people will support the smaller parties, as the character of voters is they vote for a party that can win the election, in any country in the world.”

Nevertheless, Lak Sopheap is confident. She believes that as the only female leader of a political party, she will attract the female vote. “I’m also pleased because some CNRP activists will come and join my party, but I cannot say how many; it’s confidential,” she said.

Serey Ratha would not say whether he expects to do well, while Sam Inn said that his GDP party will compete in 100 communes at the 2017 election.

“Cambodian politics is often just a competition of egos. Everyone thinks they can be the potential saviour of the nation. Someone like Mam Sonando could conceivably win seats, especially in the provinces, and could emerge as a concern for the opposition,” said Strangio.

Indeed, of all the parties’ leaders, it is Mam Sonando who appears the most buoyant about his party’s prospects. “Some people might mock me and say: ‘How can they win the election?’ But I believe we can win and give the Cambodian people the change they want,” he said. “The people will be surprised by how well we do at the next election.”  

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