Small par­ties cir­cling big stage

The Phnom Penh Post - - FRONT PAGE - Ben Sokhean and Erin Han­d­ley

THE seem­ingly im­pend­ing demise of Cam­bo­dia’s main op­po­si­tion, and the snap draft laws put in mo­tion to re­place them in par­lia­ment, threat­ens to throw a hand­ful of ob­scure par­ties into the po­lit­i­cal arena at the high­est level.

While the largest of th­ese par­ties, Func­in­pec, has staked a claim to the 41 seats it is likely to in­herit un­der the pro­posed law, other par­ties have re­jected the hand­out, say­ing the seats are “mean­ing­less” in a King­dom where op­pres­sion reigns. But re­gard­less of whether the five par­ties set to gain seats ac­tu­ally take them, one thing is cer­tain in the event of the CNRP’s dis­so­lu­tion: nearly 3 mil­lion votes will be in­val­i­dated with the stroke of a pen.

Col­lec­tively, the five par­ties in line for a seat at the ta­ble – Func­in­pec, the League for Democ­racy Party (LDP), the Kh­mer Anti-Poverty Party (KAPP), the Cam­bo­dian Na­tion­al­ity Party (CNP) and the Kh­mer Eco­nomic De­vel­op­ment Party (KEDP) – only won just over 6 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote in 2013.

By con­trast, the Cam­bo­dia Na­tional Res­cue Par ty (CNRP) – which is fac­ing dis­so­lu­tion af­ter the widely con­demned ar­rest of its leader Kem Sokha for “trea­son” – won 44 per­cent, or 55 Na­tional As­sem­bly seats.

For Sin Van­nar­ith, gen­eral sec­re­tary of the KAPP – which did not con­test the June com­mune elec­tions – the re­dis­tri­bu­tion of the CNRP’s seats would dis­en­fran­chise Cam­bo­dian vot­ers. “If we get two or three seats, but peo­ple

have no rights [or] free­dom, but [in­stead] there is op­pres­sion and ex­ploita­tion, the seats are use­less,” he said. His party would be al­lo­cated five seats un­der two draft laws leaked on Tues­day.

“We think that it is not fair for a po­lit­i­cal party to be dis­solved and [for us] to take their le­gal seat . . .We think that it is not right with the peo­ple’s will.”

The LDP, headed by fire­brand Khem Veasna – who was re­cently ac­cused of vi­o­lat­ing the elec­tion law and de­fam­ing monks – gave a more mixed mes­sage.

LDP Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Di­rec­tor Sok San said the party had no in­ter­est in oc­cu­py­ing the six seats it would gain un­der the rul­ing party’s scheme. “[I]n case [a] seat dis­tri­bu­tion is made, such given seats (na­tional and com­mu­nal) will be mean­ing­less for LDP. None of the seats will be taken by LDP,” he said via email.

LDP Sec­re­tary-Gen­eral Chen Thon, how­ever, seemed re­luc­tant to com­mit to a stance, say­ing the party needed to study the le­gal amend­ments and would “make a de­ci­sion later”.

Mean­while, CNP per­ma­nent com­mit­tee mem­ber Keo Saret said his party would con­vene a meet­ing to dis­cuss the mat­ter, although he was lean­ing to­wards ac­cept­ing the par­lia­men­tary po­si­tions. “Per­haps we will join, be­cause we got some sup­port as well,” he said.

The CNP won just 0.58 per­cent of the pop­u­lar vote, though it was like the rul­ing party in that they were the only par­ties to fail to sign an anti-cor­rup­tion pledge and dis­close cam­paign fi­nances.

Although Func­in­pec looks set to take the vast ma­jor­ity of the CNRP’s seats – 41 of the 55 – it’s not the party it was when it won the coun­try’s first demo­cratic elec­tions in 1993, hav­ing since slid into ir­rel­e­vance.

It’s also not the same party it was five years ago. In 2013, Func­in­pec was not led by cur­rent Pres­i­dent Prince Norodom Ra­nariddh – who had left to form an epony­mous party be­fore re­turn­ing in 2015. For­mer mil­i­tary com­man­der Nhek Bun Ch­hay also wielded con­sid­er­able in­flu­ence within the party in 2013.

Bun Ch­hay – now in pre-trial de­ten­tion over a years-old drug case – split off to form a new party last year. He took with him the vast ma­jor­ity of Func­in­pec’s sup­port, seiz­ing their only com­mune chief po­si­tion in the June poll. Mean­while, Func­in­pec, with Ra­nariddh back at the helm, won no com­munes.

When asked if Ra­nariddh would hold a seat and if Func­in­pec’s al­ready shaky man­date was fur­ther un­der­mined by the ab­sence of Bun Ch­hay, party spokesman Nheb Bun Chin re­sponded: “no idea”.

CNRP Deputy Pres­i­dent Mu Sochua said Func­in­pec had “no man­date and no soul left”. A for­mer Func­in­pec min­is­ter, Sochua fled the coun­try last week fear­ing im­mi­nent ar­rest.

“Any col­lab­o­ra­tors in this un­con­sti­tu­tional deal must be re­minded of their moral re­spon­si­bil­ity,” she said.

UN Spe­cial Rap­por­teur Rhona Smith yes­ter­day warned that Cam­bo­dia was all too aware of the con­se­quences of one-party rule. “Democ­racy is about voice and choice. Th­ese moves risk leav­ing many Cam­bo­di­ans with­out ei­ther,” she said.

“I am also con­cerned that the govern­ment is do­ing this un­der the guise of the rule of law.”

Cam­bo­dian Peo­ple’s Party (CPP) spokesman Su­osYara yes­ter­day stressed no law has been adopted and no par­ties had been se­lected, de­spite Hun Sen say­ing the CNRP would be re­placed with five par­ties “soon”. Yara said “analysing the pos­si­bil­i­ties” was the premier’s right.

Rep­re­sen­ta­tives of KEDP, which is set to claim one seat in the shake-up, could not be reached. But the party’s leader, Huon Reach Cham­roeun, has been con­victed of fraud and breach of trust in the past, which could make his lead­er­ship un­ten­able af­ter laws were passed this year to ban con­victed crim­i­nals from hold­ing top po­si­tions in po­lit­i­cal par­ties. His con­vic­tion is still un­der ap­peal.

With Sokha’s ar­rest last month chalked up to his claims of sup­port and ad­vice from the US, the KAPP – founded by Cam­bo­di­anAmer­i­can Daran Kra­vanh – could also find it­self in the rul­ing party’s crosshairs. In 2008, Kra­vanh claimed to have more than 300 Amer­i­can ad­vis­ers and gov­er­nors sup­port­ing his party, although he did not elab­o­rate on the na­ture of that sup­port.

But, an­a­lysts point out, the way the law is ap­plied de­pends on Hun Sen’s agenda, with the CPP us­ing “laws se­lec­tively – against those par­ties which it can­not con­trol and in fa­vor of those par­ties that it can co-opt”, said Paul Cham­bers, a lec­turer at Nare­suan Univer­sity, via email.

Re­gional an­a­lyst Carl Thayer echoed the thought, say­ing Func­in­pec “in the past cer­tainly put the in­ter­ests of the peo­ple be­hind its de­sire for a po­lit­i­cal role in the Na­tional As­sem­bly and govern­ment”.



Func­in­pec leader Prince Norodom Ra­nariddh speaks at a party con­gress last month. Func­in­pec stands to ben­e­fit the most from con­tro­ver­sial pro­posed changes to the King­dom’s elec­tion laws.

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