As CNRP’s dissolution looms, small parties look set to enter a big stage

Funcinpec leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh speaks at a party congress last month. Funcinpec stands to benefit the most from controversial proposed changes to the Kingdom’s election laws.
Funcinpec leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh speaks at a party congress last month. Funcinpec stands to benefit the most from controversial proposed changes to the Kingdom’s election laws. Heng Chivoan

The seemingly impending demise of Cambodia’s main opposition, and the snap draft laws put in motion to replace them in parliament, threatens to throw a handful of obscure parties into the political arena at the highest level.

While the largest of these parties, Funcinpec, has staked a claim to the 41 seats it is likely to inherit under the proposed law, other parties have rejected the handout, saying the seats are “meaningless” in a Kingdom where oppression reigns. But regardless of whether the five parties set to gain seats actually take them, one thing is certain in the event of the CNRP’s dissolution: nearly 3 million votes will be invalidated with the stroke of a pen.

Collectively, the five parties in line for a seat at the table – Funcinpec, the League for Democracy Party (LDP), the Khmer Anti-Poverty Party (KAPP), the Cambodian Nationality Party (CNP) and the Khmer Economic Development Party (KEDP) – only won just over 6 percent of the popular vote in 2013.

By contrast, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) – which is facing dissolution after the widely condemned arrest of its leader Kem Sokha for “treason” – won 44 percent, or 55 National Assembly seats.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Source: National Election Committee. Designed by Jenni Reid

For Sin Vannarith, general secretary of the KAPP – which did not contest the June commune elections – the redistribution of the CNRP’s seats would disenfranchise Cambodian voters. “If we get two or three seats, but people have no rights [or] freedom, but [instead] there is oppression and exploitation, the seats are useless,” he said. His party would be allocated five seats under two draft laws leaked on Tuesday.

“We think that it is not fair for a political party to be dissolved and [for us] to take their legal seat . . . We think that it is not right with the people’s will.”

The LDP, headed by firebrand Khem Veasna – who was recently accused of violating the election law and defaming monks – gave a more mixed message.

LDP Communications Director Sok San said the party had no interest in occupying the six seats it would gain under the ruling party’s scheme. “[I]n case [a] seat distribution is made, such given seats (national and communal) will be meaningless for LDP. None of the seats will be taken by LDP,” he said via email.

LDP Secretary-General Chen Thon, however, seemed reluctant to commit to a stance, saying the party needed to study the legal amendments and would “make a decision later”.

Meanwhile, CNP permanent committee member Keo Saret said his party would convene a meeting to discuss the matter, although he was leaning towards accepting the parliamentary positions. “Perhaps we will join, because we got some support as well,” he said.

The CNP won just 0.58 percent of the popular vote, though it was like the ruling party in that they were the only parties to fail to sign an anti-corruption pledge and disclose campaign finances.

Although Funcinpec looks set to take the vast majority of the CNRP’s seats – 41 of the 55 – it’s not the party it was when it won the country’s first democratic elections in 1993, having since slid into irrelevance.

It’s also not the same party it was five years ago. In 2013, Funcinpec was not led by current President Prince Norodom Ranariddh – who had left to form an eponymous party before returning in 2015. Former military commander Nhek Bun Chhay also wielded considerable influence within the party in 2013.

Bun Chhay – now in pre-trial detention over a years-old drug case – split off to form a new party last year. He took with him the vast majority of Funcinpec’s support, seizing their only commune chief position in the June poll. Meanwhile, Funcinpec, with Ranariddh back at the helm, won no communes.

When asked if Ranariddh would hold a seat and if Funcinpec’s already shaky mandate was further undermined by the absence of Bun Chhay, party spokesman Nheb Bun Chin responded: “no idea”.

CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua said Funcinpec had “no mandate and no soul left”. A former Funcinpec minister, Sochua fled the country last week fearing imminent arrest.

“Any collaborators in this unconstitutional deal must be reminded of their moral responsibility,” she said.

UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith yesterday warned that Cambodia was all too aware of the consequences of one-party rule. “Democracy is about voice and choice. These moves risk leaving many Cambodians without either,” she said.

“I am also concerned that the government is doing this under the guise of the rule of law.”

Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) spokesman Suos Yara yesterday stressed no law has been adopted and no parties had been selected, despite Hun Sen saying the CNRP would be replaced with five parties “soon”. Yara said “analysing the possibilities” was the premier’s right.

Representatives of KEDP, which is set to claim one seat in the shake-up, could not be reached. But the party’s leader, Huon Reach Chamroeun, has been convicted of fraud and breach of trust in the past, which could make his leadership untenable after laws were passed this year to ban convicted criminals from holding top positions in political parties. His conviction is still under appeal.

With Sokha’s arrest last month chalked up to his claims of support and advice from the US, the KAPP – founded by Cambodian-American Daran Kravanh – could also find itself in the ruling party’s crosshairs. In 2008, Kravanh claimed to have more than 300 American advisers and governors supporting his party, although he did not elaborate on the nature of that support.

But, analysts point out, the way the law is applied depends on Hun Sen’s agenda, with the CPP using “laws selectively – against those parties which it cannot control and in favor of those parties that it can co-opt”, said Paul Chambers, a lecturer at Naresuan University, via email.

Regional analyst Carl Thayer echoed the thought, saying Funcinpec “in the past certainly put the interests of the people behind its desire for a political role in the National Assembly and government”.

Additional reporting by Andrew Nachemson