N EW parties emerging out of old ones has marked the unofficial beginning of the 1998
election campaign as politicians decide which personalities will capture the admiration,
and ultimately the votes, of the Cambodian people.
The latest fractured political party appears to be the Buddhist Liberal Democratic
Party (BLDP), which has had unity problems since party leader Son Sann and deputy
Ieng Mouly locked horns in 1993 over whether to boycott the UN-sponsored polls. The
two finally went their separate ways in 1995, opening a wound in the party that has
festered ever since.
Ieng Mouly's recent winning of the BLDP name in court and the Dec 14 defection of
MP Son Chhay to the Khmer Nation Party last weekend may be the final blow to Son
Sann's political movement, born in Thailand's Trat province in 1979 as the Khmer
People's National Liberation Front.
Son Chhay, one of Son Sann's five remaining National Assembly representatives, said
it was a lack of leadership in the struggling party that led him to join forces with
"The BLDP is turning into a small piece of nothing," he said at his modest
one-room Phnom Penh residence. "I have this feeling for the KNP. I am in favor
of them. [Rainsy and I] are doing similar things - moving Cambodia toward democracy
with new ideas."
The position of KNP secretary-general was first offered to Son Chhay in Bangkok,
he said, but he hesitated to accept it because of conflicts between Sam Rainsy and
former party secretary-general Khieu Rada.
Khieu Rada has since formed a new party and has applied to join the UCD, according
to an official in the self-exiled political alliance.
Rainsy later approached Son Chhay and personally asked him to become a vice president
of the KNP alongside Kong Korm. This time, he was convinced by the KNP leader. "He
said it would be good for me to join because it shows the KNP is truly a uniting
of forces. Kong Korm is from the CPP, myself from the BLDP and Rainsy is ex-Funcinpec."
With the 86-year-old Son Sann set to disengage from political life to take a seat
on the Constitutional Council and Son Soubert's taste for Cambodian politics waning
since the July coup, Son Chhay said he does not expect the party to survive much
Outspoken BLDP parliamentarian Thach Reng disagrees, saying the remaining Son Sann-ists
will stay united and appeal the municipal court's decision on the party name, which
he hopes will make it impossible for Ieng Mouly to campaign under the BLDP banner.
In the meantime, Thach Reng is creating the Dharma Thipatay (Teaching Democracy)
party - which bears "Grandfather Son Sann" on its logo - for the 1998 polls.
"If we lose the BLDP name, all of those who are loyal to Son Sann will join
this party," he said.
The remaining BLDP-Son Sann MPs- Son Soubert, Pol Ham and Kem Sokha - are in Bangkok
along with their Union of Cambodian Democrats allies from Funcinpec and the Khmer
Kem Sokha said Dec 17 that the Bangkok-based trio have asked Thach Reng, who does
not consider himself a UCD member, not to register the Dharma Thipatay party, as
they favor creating a unified election strategy with Prince Ranariddh's supporters
and Bour Hel's Neutral Party.
Representatives of the BLDP and the Khmer Neutral Party have advocated the creation
of a combined candidate list for the 1998 polls, a move that would presumably assure
the smaller parties of representation in the next National Assembly.
However, Sam Rainsy has said he is not in favor of the combined list and would rather
the KNP campaign as a separate entity in the election.
Meanwhile, Funcinpec remains scattered in at least four separate directions. Prince
Norodom Ranariddh, Siem Reap Governor Toan Chay and Funcinpec Secretary-General Loy
Sim Chheang all plan to field royalist parties, and Nguon Soeur has claimed that
at least ten of Funcinpec's 58 Assembly members have joined his Khmer Citizen Party.
The deposed first prime minister looks set to retain the Funcinpec name because party
bylaws make removing its "historical leader" impossible.
Toan Chay's faction, which was the first to break ranks with Prince Ranariddh last
April, is pondering a new party name, according to Funcinpec MP Ros Hean.
Loy Sim Chheang and Funcinpec Dean Nady Tan have led the regrouping of most of the
Funcinpec officials who were upset with Prince Ranariddh's departure from Cambodia
on July 4 and remained in Phnom Penh after Hun Sen's forces took control of the capital.
A party based on upholding constitutional values will be led by Loy Sim Chheang,
according to a senior Funcinpec MP who plans to join him, but wished to remain anonymous.
Most MPs planning to make a party switch are preferring to keep their decisions private
in fear of losing their Assembly seat. Many had hoped a grace period would be declared
in the months before election day to allow them to begin moving around, but the national
election law states the campaign will last only 30 days.
Although Funcinpec appears to be losing a significant number of its parliamentarians
and government officials, Prince Ranariddh's obvious popularity among rural people
as a son of King Norodom Sihanouk may convince royalist splinter parties to seek
alliances with the deposed first premier.
One Ranariddh loyalist said party trips to the provinces have proven most Funcinpec
members continue to support the Prince.
"The rank and file of Funcinpec, they are very solid," Funcinpec steering
committee member May Sam Oeun said during his recent visit to Phnom Penh as a representative
of the Union of Cambodian Democrats. "We have a problem with some of our steering
committee members, but that is normal."
Although Ros Hean is not in favor of Ranariddh as the leader of a royalist coalition,
he said he does hope the prince, Toan Chay and Banteay Meanchey Governor Duong Khem
will remember their common past in the jungle as resistance leaders and find a way
to work together during the campaign.
"I believe that when the prince comes he will talk with Toan Chay. I don't know
about Toan Chay's feelings, but I think they will at least talk," he said.
May Sam Oeun said he had met with many disgruntled Funcinpec officials during his
stay in Phnom Penh and indications are that reconciliation of factions led by Loy
Sim Chheang, Toan Chay and Prince Ranariddh may be possible, but having First Prime
Minister Ung Huot and the prince in the same party was unlikely.
"We have to think about the election. Leadership comes and goes. We learn from
the past and apply it to the future," he said.
The KNP also stands to benefit from Funcinpec's disarray, as well as the BLDP's.
Sam Rainsy claimed more MPs will follow Son Chhay and join the KNP, but he was unwilling
to mention names.
"Many have approached me. They want to make a last-minute switch because they
don't want to get into trouble...with their respective parties."
When asked if he could attract as many Funcinpec MPs as his former compatriot Nguon
Soeur claims to have netted, Rainsy replied: "The difference between us is a
difference between quantity and quality. There are only about 12 Assembly members
that I could even work with."
Although Thach Reng, Loy Sim Chheang and Ung Huot may be considered candidates for
prime minister, political analysts identified Prince Ranariddh, Sam Rainsy and Hun
Sen as the only public figures popular enough to make a run for the top job.
Sam Rainsy agreed. "The three main forces are the KNP, CPP and Funcinpec,"
he said when asked how the competition will shape up in 1998.
The last of the big three, the CPP, appears as unified as ever while its coalition
partners fight amongst each other and flounder.
A CPP insider insisted that despite off-and-on rumors of internal divisions, the
party remains strong with Hun Sen as its undisputed candidate for prime minister.
But should Hun Sen fail to win back his job at the polls, the source claimed, the
party may ask him to take a back seat in favor of another CPP leader.