The Cambodia Daily , Story of the Month, March 10, 2007

 

Parties on the Fringe
Campaigning for the Commune Elections

By John Maloy and Pin Sisovann
The Cambodia Daily
 

     
Khmer National Party President Sum Sitha Photo courtesy of the Khmer National Party

 Photographs and political paraphernalia line the walls of Dr Liv Ann's small medical clinic in Phnom Penh.  

      A large black and white shot of him as a younger man dangles from a loft railing. An invite to a CPP function is pasted to a window behind his desk. To the right, a smiling Liv Ann beams from a recent snapshot of him in front of a large painting commemorating Jan 7-the sort commonly found at ruling CPP offices. Another photo shows the doctor sharing a moment with Prime Minister Hun Sen's father.  

      Above the entrance to his Monivong Boulevard establishment hangs a small blue sign displaying Liv Ann's political party of choice-and it's not the CPP.  

      With the commune elections mere weeks away, most of the attention in the state-run media has been paid to Cambodia's largest political parties. Will the CPP extend its dominance over the political scene? Will the SRP make strong gains at the commune level? Just how many supporters has the Norodom Ranariddh Party siphoned away from Funcinpec?  

      Beside the top four: CPP, SRP, Funcinpec and the NRP, it could be easy to forget that there are eight other smaller parties putting forward candidates in the election.  

      Liv Ann, for instance, is president of the Khmer Improvement Party, which is fielding fewer candidates than any other party: one candidate in only one commune in Kandal province.  

      The Khmer Improvement Party illustrates well the problems in summing up those political parties dubbed "small" by the National Election Committee-that is, those with candidates in fewer than 1,000 communes.  

      The policies and platforms of small parties are often not readily available and many may grossly inflate the number of supporters they have, making it difficult to judge how strong they actually are. And some have made claims that many of these small parties are merely pawns of the CPP.  

      Beyond that, at least five of the small parties have never competed in an election before.  

      In an effort to present the background, ideals and quirks of these small parties, reporters recently interviewed the leaders of each of the eight contenders who are trying their luck in the commune election.  

The Khmer Improvement Party  

      The KIP is fielding the smallest number of candidates--just one, but despite having next to no presence at the polls, party president Liv Ann showed no signs of discouragement.  

      Sitting in front of two large baskets filled with cookie tins and bottles of blended scotch-Chinese New Year gifts from party members-he calmly declared that the KIP has 680,000 supporters.  

      A former refugee camp head in the 1970s and a civil servant throughout the 1980s, Liv Ann said that he founded his party in March 1997.  

      If his party were to lead the government it would enforce decentralization of political power in the rural areas, focus on poverty reduction, push for the Khmer Rouge tribunal to go ahead and put a halt to "kidnappings for ransom and extrajudicial killings," Liv Ann said.  

      The KIP also demands the quick passage of the long-awaited anticorruption law, he said.  

      The theme of corruption proves to be a popular one with smaller political parties, as is illegal immigration-particularly immigration from Vietnam. Nearly every party spoken to cited both as top priorities.  

      Liv Ann said that his party garnered most of its support because "we talk about our plan for people to have wells and electricity in their villages."  

      Liv Ann added that he initially created his party because he believed that if it could win one or two seats in the National Assembly, the winning party would ask it to be part of the government. It is a hope he still clings to 10 years down the road.  

      "Even if we don't win any seats...the [ruling] party might call on us to join them," he said. "It would be politically beneficial to both parties."  

      Liv Ann said that his party is only putting forward a candidate in this election because the KIP wants to keep its name out there, and it will give the party a chance to get its platform broadcast nationally for free.  

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      All political parties fielding candidates in the commune election get free airtime on state-run television and radio to promote their platform and candidates each day during the 15 days leading up to the election.  

      The NEC recently ruled that political parties fielding candidates in 1,000 communes or more will each get six minutes of daily airtime, and small parties will receive five minutes each.  

      The amount of time granted by the NEC has drawn criticism from both small and large parties. Many small parties claim that by law they should get equal time, while some large parties say that they deserve far more time than small parties, such as the one-candidate KIP.  

      Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said in a recent interview that in national elections all parties must receive equal time under the law, but that the law is not clear when it comes to commune elections.  

      However, the time allotted by the NEC is "fair enough," Koul Panha said, adding that for the 2002 commune elections only the largest parties got any airtime.  

The Khmer National Party  

      Not to be confused with the Khmer Nation Party-a precursor to the SRP-the Khmer National Party was formed in June 2004 and bills itself as the "true opposition party."  

      "We do that because Sam Rainsy announced himself that he is not the opposition anymore," said Cambodian-American Sum Sitha, party chairman.  

      Sum Sitha said that the primary issues his party seeks to address are land grabbing by government officials, corruption and illegal immigration.  

      Sum Sitha said that illegal immigration represents a "very big problem."  

      "[Illegal immigrants] are...selling drug, smuggling drug-they are smuggling people," he said. "They create all kind of illegal activity."

       Sum Sitha said that the government should consider letting refugees from Vietnam stay, but claimed that many who cross the border illegally are working as agents for Hanoi.  

      On the economic front, Sum Sitha said that rather than jeopardizing foreign investment by paying workers high wages, the government should control the price of goods in the markets to ensure that they remain affordable for Cambodians.  

      According to unofficial party reports, more than one million people have promised to vote for the Khmer National Party, Sum Sitha said.  

      Despite claiming such a vast number of supporters, the party is only fielding candidates in eight of Cambodia's 1,621 communes. Sum Sitha said that the meager number of candidates was due to discord within the party last year and "problems with timing with the NEC."  

      A former member of both Funcinpec and the SRP, Sum Sitha was more than happy to disparage Sam Rainsy and Prince Norodom Ranariddh-alleging that the latter was the most corrupt man in Cambodian politics.  

      But Sum Sitha did not speak ill of the CPP, other than saying that the government is wrong "most of the time." And even though "opposition party" is printed on his business card in a font larger than the name of his party, Sum Sitha said he hopes to work with the CPP to initiate reform.  

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      There are potential problems with the number of supporters put forward by some of the small parties.  

      One must be at least 18 years old to vote or join a political party in Cambodia. According to the Ministry of Planning's National Institute of Statistics, the estimated number of Cambodians aged 20 and above in 2005 was 6,843,850. Even being generous, by assuming that half of all people estimated to be between 15 to 19 are of voting age, only around 8 million people are old enough to vote.  

      The CPP claimed recently that it had registered its 5-millionth member, a figure that a Comfrel official said was possible.  

      The Khmer National Party and Khmer Improvement Party claim 1.68 million supporters between them. The Hang Dara Democratic Movement Party claims for itself 200,000 activists alone. The United People of Cambodia says it has distributed membership cards to 100,000 people. The Democratic Society Party claims 65,000 activists and the Khmer Democratic Party says around 30,000 supporters fill its ranks.  

      If one takes these claims as gospel, it means that the SRP, Funcinpec and the NRP-which are each fielding candidates in over 1,400 communes-have under 1 million eligible voters to split between themselves.  

      This presents an unlikely scenario, given that the SRP and Funcinpec received over 2.1 million votes between them during the 2003 national election, according to the NEC.  

The Democratic Society Party  

      The Democratic Society Party is the newest party participating in the commune elections, having been formed on Dec 20-only nine days before the candidate registration deadline ended.  

      The entrance to the party's Russei Keo district headquarters is a two-story-high front room of a shophouse. It was devoid of furnishings when visited recently, apart from a stack of 14 party signs in a corner.  

      Thorng Sovannara, party president, said the party is actually a breakaway faction of the Khmer National Party.  

      The party is fielding candidates in 10 communes-two more than the Khmer National Party.  

      A resident of Long Beach, California, Thorng Sovannara said that his party is the education party, having been founded by himself and three other Cambodian-Americans at the urging of teachers and professors from across the country.  

      Beyond education, the party is also concerned with corruption and illegal immigration.  

      Thorng Sovannara said that much of his party's support is derived from members of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association-a union of educators affiliated with the Free Trade Union.

      "We work with [CITA members]; they are a strong supporter in terms of the party roots," he said.  

      Rong Chhun, president of CITA, said, however, that he'd never heard of the Democratic Society Party.  

      Regardless, Thorng Sovannara said that all his party's candidates are teachers.  

      "Each teacher, they have their students and they know their families-who can beat that?" he said. "I would rather have one good teacher as a candidate than three oknhas with a million dollars," he said.

The United People of Cambodia  

      As the name suggests, the United People of Cambodia draws much of its influence-and all of its funding-from Cambodians living in the US. It even models its party logo after the seal of the US president.  

      Sarath Oeurn, the party president, still lives in the US, only visiting Cambodia and his party once a year in July.  

      The party, which was founded in August 2003, is fielding candidates in 13 communes, primarily in Svay Rieng and Prey Veng provinces.  

      Tit Thang, the acting party president for 11 months of the year while Sarath Oeurn is in the US, said that the primary issues facing Cambodia today are the unequal distribution of wealth, land management and the near ubiquitous corruption and illegal immigration.  

      "Illegal immigrants cause instability because they came here illegally, so they tend to do illegal things," Tit Thang said.  

      If given control of the government, the party would implement a tax on large land holdings in order to decrease the number of land disputes, Tit Thang said.  

      "Rich people would not try to take land and might even give up land because of the tax burden," he said. "This would free up uncultivated land."  

The League for Democracy Party  

      Founded last year, the League for Democracy Party is bent on giving power back to the people, according to party President Khem Veasna.  

      A former SRP lawmaker who was ousted from that party in July 2005, Khem Veasna said that he has developed a platform based almost entirely on eight structural changes to the Cambodian government he says are needed to give the people this power.  

      These changes include limiting prime ministers to two terms in office, having the National Assembly determine the rank and position of police and military generals, direct election of National Assembly members and elections for every level of government.  

      Khem Veasna is so convinced that reform can not happen under the current system that he refuses to even speak about it until his eight measures are in place.  

      "We don't have the ability to reform anything, so we don't put any proposal forward," he said. "Why do we talk about that? Because when we talk, we get nothing," he added.  

      Khem Veasna said that his mission ahead of the election is to educate the people of Cambodia as best he can to improve their "integrity."

      To accomplish this aim, he has a daily radio program on the Funcinpec-owned FM 90 station through the Training and Development Organization, an NGO he also heads.  

      When asked how many supporters his party had, Khem Veasna said that he had no idea because he has no activists, adding that he doesn't even see the candidates his party is fielding in 25 communes as activists.  

      Khem Veasna said the League for Democracy Party is going to forgo all grassroots political activity and get its message out by radio alone.  

      "There's no need to go get the votes," he said. "When we are honest with them, the votes will come. We have a good heart."  

Sangkum Jatiniyum Front Party  

      The Sangkum Jatiniyum Front Party has probably generated the most media coverage of any of the eight smaller parties since it was initially founded as an alliance of smaller parties in July. The Interior Ministry, however, did not recognize the royalist party until October.  

      SJF Delegate-General Prince Sisowath Thomico, former secretary to retired King Norodom Sihanouk, has even sparked comments from Prime Minister Hun Sen warning that he might be planning a coup.  

      Speaking at the party's Tuol Kok district headquarters recently, Prince Thomico said the SJF was using the 2001 Law on Commune Administration as the base for his platform. He added that the party will use Norodom Sihanouk's Sangkum Reastr Niyum policies of the 1950s and 1960s as the model for development.  

      Prince Thomico said that under that law, commune chiefs have the ability to negotiate directly with NGOs and international aid organizations to develop their communes. Prince Thomico said that if the SJF wins any communes, they will give "full authority and full control" to the commune chiefs to make use of this provision to bring in funding and expertise.  

      Prince Thomico said that for the commune election, his party is tailoring proposals to the needs of each commune in which it is running.  

      To accomplish this, all SJF candidates record the population, number of homeless people, landless people, children not attending school and other statistics for each village in their commune, he said.  

      Candidates are also required to create a five-year development plan for their commune. The plans-with revisions by Prince Thomico-are made into pamphlets for voters that serve as signed "memos of understanding" between candidates and the people, he said.  

      Prince Thomico said his party will initiate two programs in every commune it wins: public transportation for school children and rigorous enforcement of school attendance until age 16.  

      "It's not acceptable to have a 10-year-old kid walk 4 km to school," he said.  

      Prince Thomico said corruption could be easily reduced by simple reforms of the government infrastructure, such as the creation of an official Web site to list bids for public projects, a publicly available business register and a halt to government salaries being paid in cash. He derided other parties' focus on illegal immigration as "demagoguery."  

      The SJF believes that it will win seats on the councils of each of the 100 communes in which it is fielding candidates, Prince Thomico said. He added that they expect to win the commune chief position in 30 to 35 of those communes.  

The Khmer Democratic Party  

      With so many of the smaller parties in the election having been formed since the last national election in 2003, it might be surprising to note that the oldest of all the parties competing in April's elections is the Khmer Democratic Party.  

      Party President Uk Phourik said that the party was founded in 1945, although it was forced to move underground or abroad during then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk's Sangkum Reastr Niyum and again from 1975 to 1993.  

      Sitting in a small office packed with stacks of documents and overflowing binders, Uk Phourik said that the Khmer Democratic Party platform is based around eight principles.  

      Among these principles are the protection of human rights-particularly for women and children, strict adherence to a free market economy, cooperation with all nations regardless of their socio-political policies and Cambodian sovereignty.  

      The Khmer Democratic Party urges the passage of the anticorruption law, Uk Phourik said, but added that it would be pointless unless civil servant salaries were raised to $150 to $200 per month. 

      "Before we enforce [an anticorruption] law, we must pay government officials more, or enforcement would lead to the arrest of many government officials," he said.  

      To pay for these salary increases, Uk Phourik said that $350 to $400 million would have to be raised by the government, which he said could easily be done by placing a tax on large land holdings.

      The Khmer Democratic Party believes that illegal immigrants-especially from Vietnam-take jobs from Cambodians and present a danger to the country, Uk Phourik said. He added that the party is not anti-immigration, but it wants all immigrants seeking residence in Cambodia to acquire citizenship on a case by case basis and only by royal decree.  

      In the 2003 national election, the Khmer Democratic Party was the most successful of the small parties, pulling in over 95,000 votes, according to the NEC. This time round, they are fielding candidates in 114 communes.  

      Though Uk Phourik heads his own political party, he is employed as a legal adviser to the government with a rank equivalent to minister-although he says that this does not present a conflict of interest.

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      But some question the independence of many of the small parties-claiming that they are supported by the CPP.  

      Mu Sochua, secretary-general of the SRP, said that many of the small parties are financially supported by the CPP as a way to strip votes from larger opponents.  

      "That's another game...by the CPP to have the smaller parties," she said. "The CPP has an interest in splitting up votes."  

      Muth Channtha, spokesman for the Norodom Ranariddh Party, echoed her comments.

      "You can look how many [parties] are...aligned with the ruling party," he said. "They receive bonuses from them too."  

      Speaking with the smaller parties, there was a frequent willingness to bash the SRP and the NRP, though very few parties were willing to speak out against the CPP.  

      Information Minister and government spokesman Khieu Kanharith denied that the CPP had created or supported any of the small political parties so they could take votes from their opponents.

      "To do so is to lose," Khieu Kanharith said. "Collecting votes into your own party is more beneficial."  

      He added, however, that the CPP is allied with every party competing in the election except the SRP, NRP, SJF and Hang Dara Democratic Movement Party.  

      "We share information and do not curse each other," he said. "They are not puppets," he added.  

      All eight of the small parties denied having alliances with the CPP or anyone else, except the SJF, which is allied with the NRP.  

      Koul Panha of Comfrel said that he has previously asked his colleagues to investigate the links between the small parties and the CPP. He said that he has never found evidence of the ruling party creating small parties, "but they do support, they provide some resources."  

The Hang Dara Democratic Movement Party  

      The Hang Dara Democratic Movement Party is fielding candidates in 133 communes-more than any other small party.  

      The Hang Dara party was founded in May 2002 and is committed to the preservation of the monarchy, thwarting the threat posed by illegal immigrants, getting back all Cambodian land lost to neighboring countries and fighting corruption, said Teng Sokheng, party secretary-general.  

      Teng Sokheng said the party demands that all land taken from Cambodia be returned under "article 33 of the UN law" because it has all been taken in the last 100 years.  

      "Kampuchea Krom we did not lose to Vietnam; it legally belongs to Cambodia," he said.  

      Teng Sokheng said that the biggest issue facing Cambodia is illegal immigration, especially from-you guessed it-Vietnam.  

      "It is because of illegal immigrants that we lost provinces to Thailand and Vietnam," he said, adding that if the problem isn't addressed soon, Cambodia will end up losing further territory.  

      Teng Sokheng has effectively taken control of the Hang Dara party in recent years because of the absence of the party's president and namesake from the political scene.  

      Hang Dara was a former chief of activists with Funcinpec, but broke away to form his own party, Teng Sokheng said.  

      Prince Sisowath Sirarath, second deputy president of Funcinpec, confirmed that Hang Dara had been a chief activist at Funcinpec, but declined further comment about him.  

      According to Teng Sokheng, Hang Dara left politics to become a monk after he lost the 2003 national election. He directed reporters to a small pagoda in Kandal province.  

      Hang Dara was not present at Wat Sithor in Khsach Kandal district when reporters visited, but interviews with villagers made it clear that he has built up quite a local reputation.  

      "[Hang Dara] is very good at curing disease" using traditional Cambodian medicine, said villager Leang Sophy, 48.  

      Leang Sophy said that Hang Dara, who became chief monk at the pagoda nearly three years ago, can cure 95 percent of people with mental illness and even healed somebody paralyzed from the neck down.  

      "People take [Hang Dara's] picture to put it up in their homes for prayer and worship," Leang Sophy said.  

      Hang Dara himself could not be reached for an interview.  

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      But for all their ideas and criticisms, the small parties are not seen as a threat by any of the four major political parties.  

      Prince Sirarath of Funcinpec said that small parties "could draw votes, but not many, from big parties." He added that the only real concern for Funcinpec was that the Norodom Ranariddh Party had taken a significant portion of their base.  

      Muth Channtha of the NRP said that his party didn't see any of the small parties taking votes from his party.  

      "We have a strong support base," he said. "Ninety-five percent of the country is royalist and they know that we are the true royalist party," he added.  

      "They are fly-by-night parties-they come by season," said Mu Sochua of the SRP, adding that people will notice that the candidates from most small parties won't have the background needed to earn their votes.  

      CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said that the ruling party has no fear, because the number of votes his party expects to gain this election will dwarf those that small parties might take from them.  

      "We could lose some, but we'll get thousands," he said.  

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      The small parties say that there is a need for them because they present an alternative for people who have lost confidence in the ability of the big parties to initiate reform.  

      Several also noted that the big parties sometimes splinter apart. Sum Sitha of the Khmer National Party pointed to the rift in Funcinpec following the ousting of Prince Ranariddh in October as a sign that one of the political titans might already be falling.  

      "In Cambodia there must be many parties...because sometimes larger parties malfunction and collapse," said Uk Phourik of the Khmer Democratic Party. "There must be people waiting to pick up the charge."  

      Uk Phourik noted how things have changed since the KDP was the most popular party in Cambodia over a half century ago.  

      "There is no life expectancy for parties," he said. "In 1952, we had 70 percent of the vote."