Ever since the dissolution of the main opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the progressive Grassroots Democracy Party has found itself between a rock and a hard place.
Many have called for them to boycott an election that is no longer fully democratic. As one of the only truly independent parties left, GDP is also putting a target on its back, with the ruling party reportedly tearing down its billboards across the country.
Despite a poor showing in last year’s local commune elections and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party’s almost 40-year hold on the country, an unmistakable spirit of optimism permeates the GDP. Party leaders say they genuinely believe that winning the election is an achievable goal.
In accordance with the GDP’s professed commitment to intraparty democracy, members met at party headquarters in the capital’s Phnom Penh Thmey commune on Sunday to vote on whether to participate in this year’s ballot. The decision was nearly unanimous, with only Kandal province’s executive committee voting against.
“We believe that the Cambodian people need a new choice, and we’re the new choice. We need to change the policies we’re not satisfied with. We can’t accept the current situation,” party President Yeng Vireak said after the decision.
The day before the vote, Secretary-General Sam Inn met Chairman Yang Saing Koma at his wife’s restaurant. The pair usually eats breakfast there, discussing party matters and even holding formal meetings.
Between mouthfuls of noodles, Saing Koma explained that there were three reasons behind the foundation of the party back in August of 2015.
“First, these two parties, they’re just fighting with each other,” he said, calling both the now-dissolved CNRP and the long-ruling CPP “extremists”.
Saing Koma said the party’s founders wanted to “make sure there was a third choice, something we call the middle way”.
Before the CNRP was dissolved over largely unsubstantiated accusations of fomenting “revolution”, the GDP had hoped to win enough seats to prevent either major party from achieving a majority. Inn said on Saturday that he hoped this would help increase GDP’s influence and force the CNRP and CPP to work together.
However, Inn admitted that the forced dissolution of the CNRP had thrown a wrench in the party’s plans.
Some analysts and observers, and the remnants of the CNRP, have warned that participating in the election without the CNRP only legitimises a flawed poll, which Koma acknowledged was true.
“Of course, they are right because the CNRP is the main competitor and it’s not fair – we understand,” he said.
However, Saing Koma said, he represents the people, not the analysts.
“We are listening to the general citizens, the people in the street, the farmers, the workers,” Saing Koma said.
Even while discussing serious issues, the men were jovial and were prone to fits of laughter when confronted with the idiosyncrasies of the Cambodian political scene. But when asked about the potential risks of being a politician, the mood changed abruptly.
“You know, one of our core members was Kem Ley,” Inn said.
Ley was assassinated in July 2016 in an attack widely believed to be politically motivated. He had previously appeared on radio stations to discuss a critical new report on the Hun family’s extensive business dealings.
He said GDP members know the risk they take.
“If Kem Ley can sacrifice his life for high purpose, then we can take the risk,” he said.
Later that afternoon, Inn headed to the nearby party headquarters in Phnom Penh Thmey to meet with other members of the Phnom Penh executive committee.
Bursting at the seams with greenery, the headquarters looks more like a farm than a political office. An airy balcony overlooked crops, a gaggle of waddling ducks and a pond packed with fish.
The vibe is predictable, given that Saing Koma, Inn and Vireak all studied agriculture or forestry in Europe.
Inside, a floor-to-ceiling painting of Ley watched over Inn and the committee as they voted on the order of their 12 reserve candidates, and debated whether to join the elections.
After everyone spoke their piece, they dropped slips of paper into a metal box. Each slip was read aloud while youth party member Yan Muon ticked off the results on a white board.
While intra-party competitions could breed jealousy or resentment, the room was full of laughter and playful shouting.
Out on the balcony, Deputy Secretary-General Leok Sothea worked on his computer, taking the occasional short break to corral his two energetic young boys.
Sothea is a recent member, having only joined GDP in December, but says he has kept tabs on the party since it was established. In keeping with the theme, Sothea also studied agriculture in France.
Notably anxious, Sothea worried about the reputation of the GDP.
“If we say we go, some people say we are an affiliate of CPP, but if we say we don’t go, some people say we are an affiliate of CNRP,” he said.
Meanwhile, Tang Bun Sor, a gregarious 83-year-old, poured tea and passed out fruit.
He will be standing for election in Kandal, the same province as 33-year incumbent Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“Me and Hun Sen,” Bun Sor says, bumping his fists against each other and laughing.
When asked if he will win, Bun Sor, who speaks fluent French, said: “Oui. I am ready.”
Also educated in France, Bun Sor left the country in 1973, two years before it fell to the murderous Khmer Rouge regime. He wouldn’t return for 21 years.
“What can we do if we don’t participate? In democracy the first thing to do is participate,” he said.
However, many would argue that the current state of Cambodian politics is a far cry from democracy.
Lee Morgenbesser, an expert on authoritarianism who specialises in the way dictators use elections to maintain democratic facades, said the GDP has “little to gain from participation”.
Even if they win seats, Morgenbesser said, they will “merely be shifting from participating in a flawed election to participating in a flawed legislature”.
He said it would be more in line with their democratic principles to boycott the elections.“The risk of participating in the elections is that it lends credibility to the facade long maintained by Hun Sen’s government,” he added.
Despite this, party supporter and Khmer Krom activist Son Chum Chuon said he hoped the party would run.
“It’s my right to choose,” Chuon said at the headquarters on Saturday.
Chuon said he might still boycott the elections, but said voters should make that decision themselves, and that the GDP should give the electorate an alternative if they do want to vote.
On Sunday, Party Vice President Sam Sundoeun voiced his dissent to the decision.
Sundoeun said he would support running in a fair election, even if the GDP was unlikely to win, but said participating in a flawed election is pointless.
“The National Election Committee is not independent. Who will be the arbitrator for us when we file a complaint? We can’t trust them as they come from the ruling party,” he said to the audience.
He also condemned the dissolution of the CNRP, and said the overall political atmosphere has deteriorated irrevocably.
Former CNRP Deputy President Mu Sochua also said the GDP is going against its own principles.
“Free and fair elections means giving the voters the right to chose,” she said.
Sochua said holding the elections at all is akin to silencing the 3 million people who voted for CNRP in 2017.
On Saturday, party President Vireak said he was used to conflict with the CNRP, starting with his time working for a legal advocacy NGO.
“They would take our recommendations and, most of the time, they throw [them] away,” he said.
Frustrated with the lack of progress, Vireak, Inn and Saing Koma began a new project with political analysts Meas Nee and Kem Ley.
Vireak said they quickly came to realise they could not rely on either major party.
“We could not expect the ruling party CPP to build a genuine democratic society,” Vireak said. At the same time, they felt CNRP’s top-down approach was not a good “vehicle for change”.
Vireak said GDP’s establishment was met with resistance from the CNRP, who accused them of being a CPP pawn.
Vireak dismissed accusations that the GDP was contributing to legitimising an undemocratic election, saying that the true mark of legitimacy will be determined by how many votes CPP receive, not how many people vote in total.
“We have to take the boat and follow the current,” he said.