Their leaders include a donut king and a convicted rapist on the lam. They have proposed
platforms ranging from turning Cambodia into the Detroit of Southeast Asia to extending
the national borders by 2,000 square kilometers.
But while some observers have dismissed the plethora of small parties contesting
the Cambodian elections as little more than opportunists or fronts for the larger
parties, others argue the new parties represent real hope for the war-ravaged country.
"There are the crooks and the power hungry but there are also many who deeply
believe in democracy with their heart and soul," said John Brown, an American
scholar from MIT who has been studying the importation of political ideas into Cambodia.
In addition to the four factions that signed the Paris peace accords, there are another16
smaller parties contesting the May 23-28 Constituent Assembly elections.
Most are led by former government officials of the Lon Nol and Sihanouk eras although
there are also about half a dozen parties headed by newcomers to Cambodian politics.
The founders of the majority of these smaller parties have spent much of the last
two decades in exile in the United States or France. Their exposure to Western ideas
of democracy has prompted some to try to transplant such systems to Cambodia.
"Cambodia has experienced monarchy for 2,000 years and during that time we have
gone from being the most powerful empire in Southeast Asia until we became a protectorate
of another country, so monarchy is not so good," said Kong Thann, vice president
of the Free Republican Party, whose party logo is a stylized version of the American
25 cent coin and whose platform calls for the introduction of a constitution heavily
influenced by the U.S. model.
Sim Luth, vice chairman of the Free Development Republican Party said it was time
for Cambodians to change the patron-client form of politics which he blamed for the
"Here the leaders rule the people, but in the United States the people rule
the leaders. That is a better way," he said
The strong American influence is representative of the great numbers of Cambodians
who sought sanctuary in the United States during the Lon Nol or Khmer Rouge regimes.
While many observers regard this influx of US-inspired ideals as salutary, some of
the political baggage brought back from America also borders on the bizarre.
The third storey shop house office of the Republican Democracy Party (Redek), with
its large "Communism is Evil", banner has become a landmark in Phnom Penh.
Party president Kim Kethavy said it was the vigilant anti-communism of Americans
that had allowed their country to become a great power.
"As you can see from our banner which we have hung all over the country, our
basic platform is to rid Cambodia of communism," he said.
Given Cambodia's recent past, such sentiments may not seem surprising but Kim's anti-communist
harangues are directed not at the Khmer Rouge, who he insists should be brought into
a government of national reconciliation, but at the Vietnamese.
In addition to expelling all two to three million Vietnamese he claims are living
in Cambodia, Kim said his main platform is to build scores of auto factories throughout
the country if he becomes president.
The leaders of the French-influenced parties tend to have left Cambodia earlier and
are generally better educated and politically experienced, observers say. The majority
are old Sihanoukists which is often reflected in the constitutions they have drafted.
"For those that understand the French constitution there was a tendency to be
more Gaullist, more likely to want a strong president, which I think is more consistent
with historical Cambodian politics," Brown said.
For the American-styled parties Sihanouk remains a conundrum. While many view him
as anti-democratic they also believe it is unrealistic to ignore him.
"In America when they wrote the constitution they didn't write it for anyone,
but in Cambodia we have to write for someone. Someone who we cannot omit," said
Thann of the Free Republican Party.
Observers of the foreign-styled parties say it is a matter for debate whether their
western-ties will win them votes or not.
Redek's Kim has no doubts. He has publicly stated that the "Cambodian people
love the American flag as much as they love the American dollar."
But less-impassioned observers have their doubts.
The returned Cambodians tout their success at business, understanding of western
democracy, and experience working with foreigners but their years away have also
left them open to charges that they abandoned the country.
"There is a powerful message coming from the bigger parties that these guys
ran away, that they don't know what you went through, they didn't struggle and I
think a lot of Cambodians are going to feel the same way," said a U.N. official
who has closely monitored the minor parties.
The smaller home-grown parties are largely splinter groups from the larger factions
and appear content to play a traditional role of looking for more powerful partners
to align themselves with.
Pon Piseth, the leader of the Khmer Farmers Liberal Democracy Party, who escaped
from a Site 2 border refugee camp jail where he was being held for the rape of a
17-year-old girl, has already declared he will merge his party with Hun Sen's Cambodian
People's Party after the polls.
Molinaka, whose leader Phum Neakareach (self styled "king of the dragons")
was expelled from FUNCINPEC for continuing to fight after the peace agreement was
signed, has proposed possibly the most ambitious batch of election promises.
Among them are an unspecified plan to expand the country's national borders by 2,000
square kilometers, rename the country and turn the port of Sihanoukville into Asia's
second Hong Kong.
Phum is typical of the leaders of the smaller traditional parties said one observer.
"He speaks democracy but in his heart he is a monarchist," he said.
The choice of a proportional voting system was deliberately selected by the architects
of the election to dilute the power of the bigger parties and lower the odds for
the smaller ones. A special ballot counting system was also introduced which will
give a disputed seat to the smaller party in the event of a tie.
But most observers think the minor parties have little hope of making a big impact
in the election.
"The smaller parties have already lost because what really shapes the preferences
of the people is power. Second is what people think about the possibility of war.
So many people say they are going to decide on what they think will be the least
likely route to war," Brown said.
He said that in such an election environment it would be the big parties that would
prosper, especially the powerful Phnom Penh party.
Many of the smaller parties are pinning their hopes on a promise by Hun Sen that
he will invite them into a coalition government should he win.
The six American-styled parties have formed a loose alliance, and say they have agreed
to work together after the election in the hope of having a voice in the formation
of the constitution.
What votes they do win are likely to come from a network they have slowly built through
friends, relatives and connections they established in the refugee camps.
In a country where losers in the battle for power have traditionally "gone to
the jungle" to take up armed struggle, many observers, say that some of the
idealistic new parties represent an encouraging trend.
"I have only listened to their reports of their frustrations and their minimal
successes and what is most striking about some of the smaller parties is that they
say they are more concerned about planting the seeds of democracy than winning,"
A case in point is Cham Sing, secretary general of the Neutral Democratic Party of
Cambodia, which was formed by a group made up mostly of school teachers from California.
"The election is an opportunity for us to find a peaceful solution to years
of violence. Our party may not win in this election but we can win in the next one.
This is just the beginning of the democratic process," he told Free Choice magazine.