The Grassroots Democracy Party, co-founded by slain political analyst Kem Ley, has announced it will compete in the national elections next year in all provinces, though analysts yesterday doubted that it would be able to mount a serious challenge to the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.
The GDP was founded in 2015 by Yang Saing Koma and the revered analyst Ley, a long-time critic of the ruling party whose brazen assassination last year is widely believed to have been political and prompted a massive public outpouring of grief and anger.
Saing Koma on social media announced that the party would focus on five main sectors: health; education and youth; the economy, agriculture and job creation; social protection; and democratic governance.
The country’s only major opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was removed from contention in the 2018 elections by an unprecedented and widely condemned Supreme Court ruling that summarily dissolved the party last month.
The CNRP had been the only party that had proven itself capable of mounting a serious challenge to the firmly entrenched CPP, and its dissolution left its 3 million voters with few viable alternatives to turn to.
GDP President Yeng Virak said yesterday that his party is currently recruiting candidates in every province who he said would be prepared to campaign by March or April. “Though our party has only recently been created, we are different from the ruling party and other parties. We are internally united and we have good points and one clear policy,” he said.
Following a recent survey, he said, the party decided to focus on rural areas and to tackle the root causes of problems. For example, he said, if elected the party would send 5,000 agricultural experts to the countryside to respond to people’s needs, and would also push for the lowering of interest rates on loans and prioritise access to free medical treatment.
Despite the optimism, however, the GDP’s current support base is miniscule if the June commune elections are any indication. While the CNRP won 43.8 percent of the total vote in June, the GDP only contested 27 of the Kingdom’s 1,646 communes, failing to win a single one outright, and taking just five council seats.
It will not be competing with the other obvious contender for support from disenfranchised CNRP voters, however.
Teav Vannol, acting head of Candlelight Party – formerly the Sam Rainsy Party, one of the two parties that merged to form the CNRP – said his party would not join the 2018 elections because of the CNRP’s dissolution. “People understand that only the CNRP can compete,” he said.
Ear Sophal, an associate professor of diplomacy at Occidental College in California, said in an email that choosing to compete in the elections risks legitimising polls stripped of their validity by the controversial move to eradicate the CNRP.
“Of course, by competing in this kind of environment, you risk legitimizing an election that is already neither free nor fair,” he said via email.
“Then, should you win, you risk having your seats redistributed to others and your leader jailed,” he added, referring to the hasty reallocation of the CNRP’s 55 Assembly seats and its imprisoned leader Kem Sokha, who is awaiting trial for “treason”.
But GDP President Virak said the party’s focus was simply to compete with the ruling party.
“We believe that people will support us – not only from CNRP. . . Supporters will come from all corners,” he said.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan, meanwhile, said the party was “very happy” to compete with GDP, as such competition strengthened democracy. “It is the CPP’s stance to welcome any party . . . so we welcome them. We are not narrow-minded.”
Analysts have pointed to the CPP’s willingness to accommodate minor parties as a fig leaf meant to obscure one-party rule. Indeed, at just two years old and little known, the fact that the GDP does not appear to pose a threat may be one reason it is being allowed to compete at all, Sophal noted. “[If] they really were [a threat], all eyes from the ruling party would be on them and trouble would surely follow. The key is, they did poorly enough that no-one is likely worried.”
If the party had finished third, instead of seventh, among parties in the commune elections, “there would be more risk to them”, he added.
Political scientist Markus Karbaum also doubted the party’s chances against the deep-pocketed CPP. “[Without] sufficient funding, charismatic candidates and enthusiastic activists, it will be very difficult to attract former CNRP voters.”