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Five Cambodian opposition parties demand political reform, greater freedoms

Representatives from five Cambodian opposition parties, including the main opposition Candlelight Party, met on Wednesday to demand electoral reforms and greater political freedom, but were unable to reach a deal on forming a political alliance, one of the party leaders told RFA.

The Candlelight Party took about 19 percent of the country’s 11,622 local council seats in last month’s commune elections, but is outnumbered on the councils by Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) by about five to one.

Prior to the election, the Candlelight Party candidates reported harassment and intimidation by members of the CPP and its supporters, including government officials. On Wednesday, Candlelight joined the Grassroots Democratic Party, the Cambodian Reform Party, the Khmer Will Party and the Kampucheanimym Party to issue eight joint statements demanding free and fair elections and the right to compete on equal ground with the ruling party.

The statements will be submitted to the Cambodian government and the National Election Commission (NEC), Yang Saing Koma, the Grassroots Democratic Party’s founder, told RFA’s Khmer Service.

The next step, he said, was for the parties to iron out the details on establishing an alliance.

“The Grassroots Democratic Party has coordinated our efforts and built upon what we have previously accomplished to show that the Khmer political parties, even though we are separate, can cooperate to work toward a common goal,” Yang Saing Koma said.

The five parties are studying their past experiences to create a new framework for their alliance, he said. Two scenarios are under discussion. The first would merge all of the parties into a single party and the second would keep the parties separate, but alliance candidates would not compete against each other for the same seat, he said.

The five parties will hold a joint press conference on July 11 to release their statements and announce their goals.

RFA was unable to reach NEC spokesman Hang Puthea and government spokesman Phay Siphan for comment.

Kong Monika, president of the Khmer Will Party, told RFA his party advocates a merger before next year’s general elections, when Cambodians will choose members of the 125-seat National Assembly.

The Candlelight Party’s vice president, Thach Setha, said Candlelight’s focus is on working with the other four parties to push for greater freedom and to improve the electoral process. Candlelight has not internally discussed an alliance with the others.

Merging into a singular party has been tried before with moderate success, said Ros Sothea, director of the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a local alliance NGOs.

During the 2013 election, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was able to take 55 seats in the assembly, while the CPP took 68. The CNRP was an alliance between the Kem Sokha-led Human Rights Party and the Sam Rainsy Party, named after its leader who went into self-imposed exile in France in 2015 after he was accused of crimes that his supporters say are politically motivated and groundless. 

Hun Sen had Cambodia’s Supreme Court dissolve the CNRP in 2017 after it performed well in that year’s commune council elections. The move allowed the CPP to take all 125 of the assembly seats in 2018’s general election.

The dissolution began a five-year crackdown on the opposition that made political activities under the CNRP banner illegal and forced many former CNRP members into exile. Many of those who stayed were later imprisoned.

The Sam Rainsy Party was technically a separate entity from the CNRP and not affected by the 2017 Supreme Court ruling. It rebranded itself as the Candlelight Party, and many former CNRP members have joined Candlelight, which after this year’s commune elections is firmly established as the main opposition party.

“To me, if the parties can combine forces to get free and fair competition, it would be better because of Cambodia’s electoral system,” Ros Sothea said.

The four smaller parties that participated in Wednesday’s meeting won a combined seven seats in this year’s commune council elections. The Grassroots Democratic Party won six seats, and the Kampucheanimym Party won one. The other two parties did not win a single seat but had a higher number of total votes for their candidates than the Kampucheanimym Party.

Four other smaller parties that did not participate in Wednesday’s discussion also won seats in this year’s commune elections.

Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.