The government’s decision to give a so-called terrorist group the green light to establish a political party is an attempt to dilute support for the opposition ahead of the 2018 national election, analysts said yesterday.
The Interior Ministry announced on Friday that it had approved an application from Sourn Serey Ratha, leader of the dissident Khmer People Power Movement, to form a political party, and called on him to complete the registration process, which involves collecting signatures from at least 4,000 members.
The announcement comes less than two months after Serey Ratha was sentenced in absentia to seven years in prison under charges of treason and obstructing electoral procedures.
Government officials say that despite the conviction, there is no legal basis to stop Serey Ratha from forming the Khmer Power Party (KPP).
“Everyone in Cambodia has the right to form a political party; they have the right to be elected and to elect,” said Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan.
But analysts say the decision is likely part of the ruling party’s strategy to take support away from the Cambodia National Rescue Party.
“The CPP [Cambodian People’s Party] hope that any new radical parties will probably split the votes of the opposition, affect opposition unity [and] affect the fundraising abilities of the CNRP in the US and Europe,” said independent analyst Ou Virak.
Registration of the KPP could have the effect of “driving the opposition a bit more radical”, he added, explaining that the CNRP would compete to attract funding from Cambodians living abroad who “don’t want compromise”.
Political blogger Ou Ritthy agreed that the KPP would appeal to the CNRP’s more extremist supporters.
Recently, the CNRP has tempered its anti-Vietnamese rhetoric, he said via email, “however, many Cambodian voters are xenophobic toward Vietnamese so they will more or less see [the KPP] as a new choice”.
Ritthy said the “non-royalist” party could also “mobilize Cambodian voters who believe in a republic regime”.
While votes for the CPP would likely remain unchanged, he said, the CNRP would lose seats “given the fact that the opposition votes will also need to be shared with Funcinpec, League for Democratic Party, Khmer for Khmer and others”.
But according to Serey Ratha, even if the party is formally registered, it is not likely that the KPP will run in the 2018 election.
In a document laying out its “conditions for joining the election”, the KPP calls for the creation of a “completely independent” National Election Committee, for the voter list to be assessed and “yuon” – an often derogatory term for Vietnamese people – names removed, and for Cambodian migrants to have the right to vote from abroad.
CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said that she was more concerned about the legality of the ministry’s approval than losing support.
“There are members who are in jail, so this is very confusing,” she said. “Something’s wrong with this system; either they’re legal or they’re not.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA