Before a crowd of about 70 of his peers on Saturday, Khath Sothy walked up to the podium and started to list his resume. He grew up in a farming family in Kandal province and farmed for the early part of his life before he started bicycling from Koh Dach commune every day to study at the Royal University of Phnom Penh.
“If you don’t believe me, then you can go to Koh Dach and ask the older people there. You will know that I tell the truth,” he said with a straight face, drawing laughter from the audience.
He said he had worked with land rights activists, as a journalist and in jobs with banks and schools, but now felt that he wanted to enter politics. Acknowledging his inexperience, Sothy set a high bar for his potential representation of the capital’s residents.
“If I don’t take good responsibility in my position, you can vote to remove me from that position. As they say in Khmer, ‘Easy to put in, and easy to remove’,” he said, again to giggles.
Speaking in a Sen Sok district compound filled with plants and quacking ducks, Sothy was campaigning among his colleagues to stand as a candidate for the upcoming national elections representing the fledgling Grassroots Democratic Party (GDP).
The party, which was founded with input from slain political analyst Kem Ley, is attempting to institute an intraparty democratic model, which party functionaries say is superior to the top-down approach used by the larger political entities in the country. But even party officials on Saturday acknowledged that the party’s novel democratic nature – not to mention its tiny size – will make the 2018 election campaign an uphill battle to say the least.
The GDP hopes to allow its provincial working groups to pick its candidates through balloting. Candidates can only be selected from within the working groups, through which party Chairman Yang Saing Koma hopes to train new leaders.
“This is something like a primary,” he said. “We need to compete with the other parties, so this is like an exercise within our party.”
However, in some provinces, the party is still struggling to find enough members to even form a working group.
Even so, the GDP has stated its intentions to contest the July national elections across the country, despite the worsening political situation, which has seen the forced dissolution of what had been the country’s only viable opposition – the Cambodia National Rescue Party – and the jailing of its leader, Kem Sokha.
The GDP only contested around two dozen communes in last year’s local elections, and has since refused to accept the CNRP’s commune council seats, the redistribution of which observers criticised as undemocratic.
As Saturday’s meeting commenced, only 11 of the 20 members of the GDP’s Phnom Penh working group came forward to stand as candidates for the July ballot. This fell short of the 12 seats up for grabs in Phnom Penh, not to mention the additional 12 reserve candidates mandated by the National Election Committee.
After picking ballot positions, the candidates were given five minutes to make their case to their colleagues, with some stating their educational and professional background, and others choosing to focus on their policy inclinations.
Party officials then conducted a quick election under the supervision of party seniors Koma and Yeng Vireak, the GDP’s president. But the result, which ranked party spokesman Sam Inn in first place, threw up a challenge: there were no female candidates in the top three positions.
Saing Koma said that the party has made it clear that for each province there will have to be at least one female candidate in the top three positions, which are normally seen as having the best chance of winning.
Quick discussions ensued, and members decided to vote on which of the two female candidates in the line-up should take the third spot, with the position eventually going to Long Kanha, who pushed male candidate Heng Sam Orn to the fourth position.
“I don’t feel jealous at all when I got the third place and was replaced by a woman. There is a rule, and I have to follow the rule, so am happy for that result,” Sam Orn said.
The three-hour long process yielded 11 freshly minted candidates for the party. But things will not be easy in many of the provinces, with Koma saying the party’s low name recognition and lingering fear following the CNRP’s dissolution made it hard to find core provincial members.
“If you are doing a top-down approach you can do it fast. People come and you appoint them to be chief of a party in a province,” he said.
“Ours is a very process-oriented [selection], and it takes time. It is small now, but we want to make sure it is beautiful.”