When Kuch Ly travels around the country trying to build support for his party, he can attract crowds of 10 to 20 people at a time, for rallies that last at most 30 minutes, he says.
Amid continuing fears around Covid-19, Ly says that even if he could draw larger gatherings they would get shut down.
“This is an issue for our party as well as other parties that visit the people. If they dare to meet more people, local authorities will come,” the Khmer United Party president says. “It is a big worry for all parties.”
With under a year until next year’s local-level elections, political analyst Em Sovannara predicts that the country’s opposition parties might be able to win a total of five to 10 communes out of more than 1,600.
The problem isn’t just how new, small or inexperienced the opposition parties may be. The ruling party’s powerful political machine that has been built up over decades, a shrinking space for political expression, lack of funds and organization, and the unique challenges of conducting politics amid a pandemic confront the minor parties at every turn.
Sovannara says only some legacy parties that existed pre-2017 have a chance of getting a seat here and there.
“For the new parties, we have not seen any hope for them getting a commune seat, because their strength and political values are still low, and they have not gotten more support from people,” Sovannara says.
He adds that the opposition CNRP’s strong showing in 2017 was an anomaly, as the ruling party normally dominated the grassroots elections. The CNRP’s extensive efforts at the commune level, its past success, and the leadership of a former finance minister in Sam Rainsy allowed people to believe in the party, he says.
Former CNRP officials creating new parties only raise suspicions among the public about playing into the hands of the ruling party, which has insisted that the country’s elections are fair and democratic despite winning 125 of 125 seats in the National Assembly in 2018 after the Supreme Court dissolved its main challenger, the CNRP. The ruling party frequently points to the number of parties that contested the 2018 election as proof of a multiparty democracy.
“Their participation in the 2022 and 2023 elections is just to beautify the garden of democracy,” Sovannara says. “[They] can’t get supporting voices in democratic ways from Cambodians.”
Sovannara adds that political freedoms will be narrower in 2022 compared to 2017. People will face pressure against showing opposition support — as ongoing support for the outlawed CNRP has landed many in jail — and political parties will be hamstrung in their activities. The ruling CPP, meanwhile, has power structures at all levels across the country.
Mu Sochua, vice president of the banned CNRP, says everyone has the right to create new parties, but what people really want to see is united, mass support for democracy.
She questions the new parties’ activities — whether they really stand for human rights and democracy — noting how she hasn’t seen any of them come out to express support for arrested youth environmentalists and other activists.
The arrests of three Mother Nature environmentalists last month — following the sentencing to jail of three others the prior month — sparked renewed concerns from several embassies and civil society groups, but little noise from opposition politicians in the country.
In the absence of any opposition in the National Assembly, the government in 2018 set up a Supreme Consultative Council where minor party members were given the chance to raise their concerns. But politicians have been removed from the council for bringing up land issues.
“So at this time we should not be talking about the 2022 election. It is meaningless if there is almost no democratic space,” Sochua says.
Instead, politicians and civil society should focus on demanding the reopening of a space for democracy, she says.
Meach Sovannara, a senior CNRP official, says that the Cambodian public is mostly only focused on leaders and personalities, so any opposition needs CNRP co-founders Rainsy and Kem Sokha to win support.
“Mr. Kem Sokha and Mr. Sam Rainsy are still present and have not retired,” Sovannara says.
Rainsy has not set foot in Cambodia since 2015 to evade court cases against him. He promised a return in November 2019, but was not able to get on his airplane from Paris.
Sokha was arrested in 2017 for treason, and after a stint in prison awaiting trial, remains under court supervision and is banned from conducting political activities.
Sovannara points out that around 20 former CNRP members have asked for amnesty to rejoin politics, but rather than unite, they formed five separate parties. It sows doubt about their motivations, he says.
Powerless Amid the Pandemic
Mam Sonando, president of the Beehive Social Democratic Party, says he hasn’t had any meetings with members since the Covid-19 pandemic. “[I] still cannot make a conclusion about when we can meet each other,” he says.
Sonando adds that he feels unsure about how to organize before 2022. “I will try to participate, but I don’t know how,” he says. “I don’t dare to guarantee it, and will just let it be.”
Khmer Will Party president Kong Monika also says that Covid-19 is putting him at a disadvantage.
“The ruling party has already had a structure for a long time and they have their people, and they don’t allow us to gather but they can gather. They have money and more resources than us. We have less resources,” he says.
Still, Cambodia Reform Party founder Ou Chanrath says he feels there is no other choice but to try something new. “We understand that if [we] leave the situation as it is, the ruling party will continue to control power in the way of riding a horse without holding the reins.”
Ly, the Khmer United Party president, says that as he struggles to assemble crowds in coronavirus-afflicted provinces, he is also considering reducing election advertisements on roadside billboards. The presence of any alternative to the ruling party could be further limited in the country’s physical landscape.
Billboards cost $500 to $1,000, but social media is cheap, he says. “We are thinking of not setting up many logos in public places,” he says. “I don’t think many parties will spend money on setting up logos. They will use social networks.”
Digital technologies could be an opportunity. But he admits that for now it’s hard to have lofty goals.
“Only if Prime Minister Hun Sen, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha announce their retirement, then we will start showing our best to become a real opposition in Cambodia.”