As the ruling party and their key political rivals eye next week’s commune election as a crucial bellwether poll for 2018’s national contest, some local voters feel they have been overlooked by the political heavyweights and are turning to the Kingdom’s smaller parties.
Three of these parties – the League for Democracy Party (LDP), the Grassroots Democracy Party (GDP) and the Khmer National United Party (KNUP) – were out in force over the weekend, blaring their election promises over loudspeakers as they rallied in the streets.
They are not just battling for recognition; they are trying to overcome voter apathy; disprove claims that they are puppets of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP); counter fears that a vote for them is a “waste” as it siphons off votes from the main opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP); and ward off scepticism that they don’t have the resources to pull off their promises.
Despite their lack of political clout at the highest levels, all three have a central charismatic figure and policies that hold sway at the grassroots.
A clanging bell adorns the League for Democracy Party’s flag.
“It’s a wake-up call,” says Khem Veasna, the party’s firebrand leader, in front of at least a thousand overwhelmingly young supporters gathered in Takhmao on Friday.
Known for his unorthodox rhetoric, Veasna doesn’t disappoint. The CNRP is “arrogant” and “was hired to be a loser”, while any party that demands votes is “selfish”.
Cambodia could be developed further through agriculture and tourism, but for now it remains a “shy country”. “If it was not a shy country, we would not do politics,” Veasna said.
Beating his chest with his fist, he roused the crowd: “We have trained the LDP for 10 years. The LDP’s time is now!”
The party has been steadily growing since it was founded in 2005 and is standing for election in 844 communes – more than half of the Kingdom’s total 1,646.
Veasna stands by a circuitous route to victory, one that is centred on “pure hearts”, not a hunger for power in and of itself.
“We don’t think about the votes, we just help. Therefore the villagers love us and vote for us,” he said.
When it comes to collecting money at the rally, he insists he will not accept more than 1,000 riel (about 25 cents).
“I will blame you and make you embarrassed in front of everyone if you give more than 1,000 riel,” he said.
His supporters are inspired. One monk, Soth Sovann, 28, sees “countless” societal problems stemming from a lack of shared power. “The monk also lives in this society, therefore we need to make a contribution and take part in politics,” he said.
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Siean Borin, 36, a tailor in Takhmao sporting a tattoo on his left bicep, said he had become disillusioned after having voted for both the CPP and the CNRP in the past.
“Both parties are not working now; they are very good at making promises, but unfortunately the results are zero,” he said.
“This party has a clear policy; providing rights to the people . . . Poor people cannot confront the rich people, but the LDP is not selective and does not discriminate against anyone.”
Some Takhmao residents, however, had their reservations. Tuk-tuk driver Prom Phea, 37, took issue with the “harsh words” Veasna had used towards monks for not following a sufficiently ascetic lifestyle. He cited no problems with his current CPP commune chief.
“But I know that even if I did support the LDP [and] voted for them, it cannot win over the two big parties,” he said.
A small convoy snaked along the red clay road in Kampot province on Saturday, with Grassroots Democracy Party candidate Nam Chany, 36, resolutely standing on the back of a pickup truck and making a “peace” sign.
“Only peace and community; do not be scared of war, there is no war with us,” she says into a microphone, an attempt to dispel fears instilled by Cambodia’s “dirty politics”.
The GDP, founded in 2014, has modest ambitions for this race, vying for just 27 communes. They hope to create a “pilot” commune to prove politics can be done differently in Cambodia.
Yang Saing Koma, the chair of the GDP’s local leader capacity programme, has high hopes the party can secure victory in the twin communes of Meanrith and Damnak Sokram in Dang Tong district.
“Kem Ley and I were the architects of this party. We still have to continue his mission. After his death, it gave us more strength to continue,” Saing Koma said.
“The majority of citizens want change, but they do not have a choice, so we are the alternative.”
Some key policies, including improved health care and better access to water, were popular with locals.
Tieng Heurng, 35, a rice farmer, said she began supporting the party after she learned they would help find markets for her produce.
“It is very difficult to find the market for our crops, and I hear this party will help look for markets for the villagers, and I don’t see any other party that would do that,” she said.
Villager Yim Srim, 52, said she had heard the party’s message wafting from the road. “The policy is good; they could do irrigation and fix the waterways. But I am just sceptical about it,” she said.
One villager, a widow named Savy Chreb, 45, was uplifted by the promise of a better agricultural future for her and her two daughters, but had also become disillusioned with her current commune chief from the CPP.
Selling snails for $1 a kilo to get by, Chreb said she had been riddled with illnesses and she had been refused an ID card for the poor, despite being issued two in the past.
“The current commune and village chiefs don’t care about us. When I am sick, they don’t drop by,” she said.
Khoun Samnang, 56, who works as a security guard for CPP Senator Ly Yong Phat, held a certain reverence for the former Funcinpec deputy and military commander, due to his handling of border disputes with Thailand.
“I was a former soldier [and] I came to follow him, even though where I am working is CPP-aligned. I know it is hard to win, but he is really committed,” Samnang said, driving his moto during a rally in Phnom Penh yesterday.
Ahead of the rally, attended by hundreds, Bun Chhay told journalists cooperation was vital to “serve the interests of the people”.
“What I want to see is elected officials from a diversity [of parties] being able to work together; before there is confrontation, and if there is such a problem it does not make the commune work smoothly,” he said.
Some 130 former Funcinpec commune candidates defected to KNUP and will stand for re-election next week. KNUP has candidates listed in 713 communes.
Several KNUP supporters were garment workers, who had been encouraged to back the party by their unions. One such supporter was Chea Pov, 36.
“The union told us to come. They said the party would help people when the Chinese mistreated us,” she said.
“The party told the union they would give us money when we have traffic accidents,” she added, a key concern for workers boarded onto trucks each day.
Chem Sok Kong, 40, travelled from Tbong Khmum to join yesterday’s rally. “I love his personality and I love his leadership, he is very down to earth,” he said.
“The hope of winning is not clear, I know, but it is just the beginning. It is hard initially.”
In light of his former stature, Bun Chhay and his newly minted party will be studying the commune results closely to gauge their position ahead of the 2018 national poll.
“The commune election is very important because it’s very close and direct to the people. When the commune election result is good, it could bring a good result for the national election,” he said.
But for Saing Koma at the GDP and its cluster of communes, the local level is an end in itself.
“Local is critical for us,” he said. “We believe that to build a nation, we need to start with a commune.”