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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Running with the big dogs

Khmer Anti-Poverty Party leader Daran Kravanh (centre) meets with supporters in Takeo province
Khmer Anti-Poverty Party leader Daran Kravanh (centre) meets with supporters in Takeo province this month. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Running with the big dogs

Everyone should plant a tree, and all illegal immigrants in the Kingdom should be rounded up and placed in a large refugee camp — these are just two of the unique ideas put forward by Daran Kravanh and his Khmer Anti-Poverty Party.

Founded in September 2007, KAPP ran in the 2008 National Assembly elections and in last year’s commune elections, but won no seats in either. And when asked about the chances that his party could win any seats this year, the party president sighed.

“It’s impossible because the Cambodian People’s Party controls everything,” Kravanh said in a recent interview.

With little chance of electoral success, what exactly does the KAPP hope to achieve by running? Like many other small party leaders, Kravanh said he wants to inject a new perspective into politics. But in what might seem like a contradiction, he was hesitant to disclose the specifics of his most unusual ideas — he said he was afraid other parties would steal them.

When asked where the proposed illegal immigrant refugee camp would be located — and whether such a camp might raise any human rights concerns — Kravanh declined to give details.

“The ruling party is violating our rights,” he said.

“They allow us no freedom for our party, but they take our party ideas.”

His example of alleged intellectual theft: Since the KAPP’s 2008 National Assembly campaign, the party has been asking its members to each plant at least one tree. A few years after Kravanh proposed the project, he noticed that Siem Reap provincial authorities, too, had begun a tree-planting initiative.

Broad-faced and handsome, Kravanh speaks with authority, and KAPP secretary-general Sin Vannarith said when he first met Kravanh in California, where both men were living at the time, he thought: “This is a man who could lead a country.”

But it’s just about impossible that Kravanh and his party will be given that chance, this time around at least. As the ruling CPP strives to keep its more than two-thirds control over the National Assembly, as the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party hopes to erode that control and as the royalist Funcinpec party struggles to hold on to its few remaining seats, the five other parties competing in this year’s elections will be lucky if they win even a single seat in the 123-member parliament.

Biggest of the little guys
Like the KAPP, the League for Democracy Party, the Khmer Economic Development Party, the Cambodian Nationality Party and the Republican Democracy Party have never won any National Assembly seats before. In fact, the latter three weren’t even around for the previous National Assembly elections in 2008.

That’s one reason political analysts like Chea Vannath say that of these five, the League for Democracy Party has the best chance of winning a seat — though the odds still don’t look good. In 2008, the LDP won just over one per cent of the vote, with 68,909 valid votes, while the KAPP won 9,501 votes.

Last year, the LDP won eight commune council seats. This was nothing compared with the five larger parties’ wins — from the CPP’s 8,000 seats down to the Norodom Ranariddh Party’s 52 – but the LDP’s tally still set it apart from the other small parties, which won at most one seat.

Added to its relative seniority — it was founded in 2006 — the LDP also has an edge due to party president Khem Veasna’s political foothold as a former Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker.

Veasna recently told the Post that he left the SRP because he was tired of its politicians’ hunger for power.

“I told my leader, Sam Rainsy, you are a famous one, so you have to [be] honest. And my party leader refused, because his nature and my nature are very different,” Veasna said.

“We are both opposition, but we have different ways of fighting against the government. LDP’s platform is to reduce the power of the prime minister. The SRP just wants to change the prime minister.”

Limiting the prime minister’s power is one of the LDP’s main focuses. Specific aims include restricting the prime minister’s terms to two five-year National Assembly mandates, prohibiting the prime minister from appointing his own bodyguards, requiring him or her to live in housing provided by the state, and creating a special court to oversee these limitations.

But like KAPP members, LPD supporters stressed that their party is less focused on winning seats than on getting their ideas out.

Kun Sakdin, 26, LDP’s first candidate in Kampong Cham province, told the Post: “I cannot say how many votes the LDP will win, but the important thing is that we give a clear message of our policy, and that all information reaches the people.”

He added that he had been attracted to the party because he saw that Veasna was a “serious, honest man”.

Khmer Economic Development Party leader Huon Reach Chamroeun (right) at a debate in Phnom Penh
Khmer Economic Development Party leader Huon Reach Chamroeun (right) at a debate in Phnom Penh last week. PHA LINA

“We explain to the candidates that politics is not business, you know,” Veasna said. “We do not choose candidates who join politics because they want to get a high profile or want to be famous. Politics is not that. If charity to the people is your view of politics, and you don’t want anything from the politics, then you come here.”

For this reason, LDP focuses on recruiting young people like Sakdin; three of the eight commune councillors elected from the LDP last year were under 35.

Struggling for a voice
The LDP also wants to reform the election law so the number of seats allocated to each party is more in sync with the number of votes the parties receive.

With the 1998 National Assembly election, the National Election Committee started using a seat-allocation formula that gives parties with the most votes a larger proportion of seats than their total votes would normally dictate.

Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said this means that small parties that might have earned a seat or two are more likely not to win any. (However, Laura Thornton, resident director for the National Democratic Institute in Cambodia, said she did not think the five small parties would win enough votes for the formula to affect them anyway.)

Added to this challenge, Panha said, the small parties face “difficulties with access to resources or access to the media.… Between elections, they are not able to conduct political activities. You know, the major parties always do a lot of work, with networking and political activity, but the small parties cannot be heard so much between election times. And during election time, they cannot conduct huge campaigns.”

In this difficult environment, fewer and fewer parties have contested each subsequent National Assembly election. Thirty-nine parties ran in 1998 and 23 in 2003, down to 11 in 2008, and eight this year. And the smaller parties won less and less of the vote.

Analysts agree it is unlikely the small parties will draw away many voters who would have otherwise supported either the CNRP or the CPP, adding that those they convert are as likely to have otherwise been CPP supporters as CNRP supporters.

Opposition candidate Son Chhay also said the CNRP was not much concerned about the small parties, but he expressed some annoyance that they were taking up a sizeable portion of the media time allowed parties other than the CPP.

“They have no political activity and then suddenly jump in — for us it is useless, you know. It takes away our airtime. We have half an hour or 20 minutes, on TV or radio, but some other parties are kind of meaningless — it could turn off people from watching the rest of it,” he said. “I don’t know why they do it.”

Continuing in a softer tone, he added: “In general, I think we need to encourage them, because Cambodia should have a number of parties and representatives from the people in the parliament.… But we wonder, is there a hidden agenda behind all these parties? Some of us would just think that they were just created by the ruling party to cause a lot of confusion.”

Chhay declined to specify which small parties seemed suspect, saying, “I don’t want to [have] a confrontation with them.”

When asked about Chhay’s statement, CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith responded: “Everybody is free to form a political party, but why would the CPP waste its money to create other parties?”

Having little else to say about the small parties, Kanharith added simply, “Let the best one win.”

Broadening the discussion
Leaders of the Khmer Economic Development Party say they expect to win at least one seat in the seven provinces where they are running — Kampong Chhnang, Kampong Speu, Kampong Thom, Kampot, Kandal, Pursat and Takeo.

League for Democracy Party supporters attend a campaign rally in Phnom Penh
League for Democracy Party supporters attend a campaign rally in Phnom Penh. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Like most of the other small parties, the KEDP didn’t start campaigning until this past Sunday, nearly a month after the campaign season officially began and the larger parties began their noisy rallies.

But at the television debates last Wednesday, the KEDP — at seven months old, the youngest party contesting the election — held its own alongside the CPP and CNRP.

Noticeably more animated than his larger-party competitors, KEDP president and wealthy businessman Huon Reach Chamroeun, who funds most of his party’s activities himself, spoke animatedly about development and job creation, saying that under his party, you “would not become moto taxi drivers”, and likening corruption by underpaid civil servants to theft by starving victims of the Khmer Rouge.

The two remaining parties, the Democratic Republic Party and the Cambodian Nationality Party, have broad-based platforms but say their leaders set them apart. DRP president Sokroth Sovan Panhchakseila has attracted support as the one female party president, while current CNP president Seng Sokheng said his party would soon stand out when a monk replaced him as president.

But both parties have failed to attend some of the events that would have given them a rare chance to have their voices heard.

Like the CPP, the CNP failed to respond last month to invitations from Transparency International to sign an anti-corruption pledge and from Comfrel to agree to disclose campaign finances. The TI event gave candidates the opportunity to outline their stance on corruption, and DRP president Panhchakseila spoke eloquently about the need to raise teacher’s salaries.

“Salaries for teachers and professors are so low that they cannot make a living, and they have to create extra fees — 500 riel from each student for a sheet of paper — they have to run a business in class for their students,” she said.

But her party withdrew from the NDI-organised television debates this month because it could not round up 40 supporters to attend.

For his part, KAPP secretary-general Vannarith estimated that his party has half a million members, which would suggest a big increase from the party’s fewer than 10,000 votes in 2008 —and a lot of trees.

“But we are open. We do not register,” he said. “The goal is not this party against other parties. The goal is work together for the country.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA AND STUART WHITE

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