A dark horse in the race for democratic reform

The founder of Khmers for Khmers, Kem Ley
The founder of Khmers for Khmers, Kem Ley. Eli Meixler

A dark horse in the race for democratic reform

Both the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition must be reformed internally to meet democratic standards, says political analyst Kem Ley who this week sparked rumours he was starting a new party.

Denying his “social network”, tentatively titled Khmers for Khmers, was a political party, Ley said they planned to submit internal reform proposals to both the CPP and Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). Whoever adopts the changes will win the network’s support in future elections, he said.

“The social network is happy to work with the CPP and it is happy to work with the CNRP to build intra-party democracy,” he said, adding that they will also submit proposed reforms within government to the Council of Ministers.

“We design the principles of intraparty democracy … and we will use the social network to put the pressure of reform on the parties,” Ley said.

Although purportedly non-partisan, Ley’s proposed structure for Khmers for Khmers closely resembles that of a political party. Khmer for Khmer’s core members, which tentatively consists of 21 Cambodian intellectuals ranging from NGO directors to university professors, are to be elected by a standing committee that will in turn be elected by the network’s general members.

Ley denied having any political ambitions of his own for the moment. He did, however, note popular enthusiasm for a new opposition movement.

NRP leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha have been accused of running their party undemocratically
CNRP leaders Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha have been accused of running their party undemocratically. Vireak Mai

“[People] have requested again and again to create a party, but I’ve said that, no, we cannot create a party – we must test our social network to put pressure on for reform,” he said.

At a recent meeting, the network gave each party a mark out of 100, with high scores indicating strong levels of intra-party democracy. The CPP was awarded 10 points and the CNRP 19. “The CPP, everything is decided by the prime minister, not by the delegates,” Ley said. “And even the CNRP standing committee is selected by Sam Rainsy, not by the delegates.”

He said that the proposed reforms of the network will come from research of political parties throughout the democratic world. The American system of presidential primary elections, added Ley, may be a model worth emulating. “Obama beat Hilary Clinton before standing with [John McCain],” he said, referring to the 2008 US elections that eventually lead to the victory of US President Barack Obama.

“We learned from it and tried to tell the people that the candidates of the opposition party and the ruling party must be decided by the party members before the election,” he said.

Ley said he hopes that Khmers for Khmers membership will spread through online and offline recruitment.

Each member is expected to pay a donation, he said, although the specific amount will be up to the individuals. The goal is to recruit hundreds of thousands – perhaps even millions – of voters in order to have a sizeable impact.

Khmers for Khmers gave Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP only a slightly worse rating for intra-party democracy than the CNRP
Khmers for Khmers gave Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP only a slightly worse rating for intra-party democracy than the CNRP. AFP

Yeng Vireak, executive director of Community Legal Education Centre and founding member of Khmers for Khmers, said that the first step to national political reform is change within the parties themselves.

“If the party is big, if the party is not democratic, if the party does not have any intra-party democracy, how can they promote democracy in the country?” he said.

Ley emphasised that the network does not aim to be an enemy of either the ruling party or opposition. He does not hide, however, his staunch opposition politics. A voter for the CNRP in the 2013 general election, Ley said that deforestation is his biggest political concern. He also referred to Vietnamese immigration as “colonisation”, a term previously used by top CNRP leaders on the same subject.

“The CNRP’s concern, we are also concerned about that – this is the same goal, the same mission and vision.”

Kem Monovithya, CNRP deputy public affairs head, told the Post on Sunday that she respected the group’s intentions but feared it would cause harmful division among opposition supporters.

“In reality, their actions so far or in the form of a party in the near future will benefit the CPP more than helping the CNRP or democracy here. Division in opposition has been key to CPP’s success for decades,” she said, adding on Thursday that she stood by her words.

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