In Cambodia Election, Upstart Party Seeks to Capitalize on Opposition Downfall

Supporters for the League for Democracy Party is cheering in support of party leader Kem Veasna's speech at Techo Hun Sen Boulevard, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 27, 2018. (Ky Mengly/ VOA Khmer)

At dawn on the newly-paved Hun Sen Boulevard in the south of Phnom Penh, tens of thousands of members of the League for Democracy Party (LDP) are making themselves heard.

The party decided to go ahead with their “largest-ever” political rally on the last day of the three-week campaign period as Cambodia heads into a general election this Sunday.

The LDP is one of 19 parties registered to compete against the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and its leader, Prime Minister Hun Sen.

In power since 1979, the CPP is expected to win a landslide victory on Sunday. The path to victory was paved in November when its main political opponent, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, was dissolved over questionable accusations of conspiring with the United States government to plot regime change.

Kem Sokha, the CNRP president, was jailed since September on treason charges, while 117 other senior CNRP officials are banned from politics until 2022. Many CNRP officials who, under duress, defected to the CPP or went into exile, have branded Sunday’s poll a “sham”, calling for a boycott, known as the “clean finger” campaign in a reference to the ink used to stain voters’ fingers.

But at Hun Sen Boulevard, the mood is different. The LDP is known in Khmer as Sampoan, or The League.

LDP leaders and supporters came from all over the country in the hope that their support can elevate the party to the level of the CNRP prior to its dissolution. “Sampoan is growing big now,” reads a slogan at the rally. Days earlier, the slogan was used as a hashtag online.

LDP's youth supporters ride motorcycles on the last day of the election campaign in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 27, 2018. (Ky Mengly/ VOA Khmer)

On Thursday night, the party’s leader, Khem Veasna, said in an online talk show that it would be a huge upset if the LDP gained more relevance as a large political force in Sunday poll. “It will be a historical change and a political turning point,” he said.

While the CPP claimed about 250,000 supporters turned out for its rally, the LDP says some 70,000 attended its rally, which cost about $1 million to organize.

Speaking to the crowd, Veasna said the ambition was to gain a good number of seats in parliament. “If we secure some standing ground, opposition supporters will start to unite around us in the next election.”

Unlike many of the other minor parties competing in the poll, some dubbed as “fireflies” for their expected fleeting nature, the LDP has become a familiar household name in Cambodian politics since it was founded in 2005.

Veasna believes that opposition supporters could outnumber the CPP supporters, but that a victory against the CPP outright is not possible because the opposition is fractured.

Now 52, Veasna was an elected MP with the Sam Rainsy Party until 2005, when he quit after reported disputes with the party leadership.

Since its founding, the LDP has gained a reputation for its goal of building “a motherland where everyone has an equal right to its ownership” and their so-called “eight mechanisms” to empower people through reforms to decrease state power.

The LDP as a party believes that “the root cause of problems in Cambodia is the concentration of power.”

Just before he led the campaign rally, Veasna told journalists that the party’s focus remains on “revolution of the mindset” among the populace and values of “political and social integrity”.

LDP leader Kem Veasna speaks to a crowd of supporters on the last day of election campaign, Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 27, 2018. (Ky Mengly/ VOA Khmer)

“Old-style politics is to gain belief from the people and come to support, but our style is to explain until the people understand our policy.”

Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Los Angeles-based Occidental College, said: “I’m sure LDP leaders would like to think of their party as a real opposition party, but if they were, they would not be allowed to run in the election. They do not pose an existential threat to the ruling party,” he said.

Asked if LDP could be a real contender in the future, Sophal added: “That’s like saying is the CPP the real ruling party? Yes it is, and if it were dissolved, that would not be good either—we need to give people real choices. We now have 19 parties that are not the ruling party. Why not 190 parties, why not 1,900 parties?”

LDP supporters – mostly millennials from underprivileged backgrounds – refer to Veasna as “Puk” which is a Khmer term roughly translating to “father”. He, like other Cambodian politicians, relies on political rallies to reach out to poor farmers in rural areas.

Critics of the party have said the LDP’s use of strong language has amounted to personal insults and bullying.

Buth Seakne, a senior party member until he left the LDP in March, has since become a staunch critic – referring to himself as a “whistle-blower” – by launching a series of online speeches against the party and its leader.

“Considering his behavior, attitudes, and policy, there is no way he can expand the party to compete with the ruling party. He is a boastful type of person whose eight-point policy is completely empty.”

“He takes advantage of the CNRP’s dissolution to draw more audiences to his side so as to gain more votes,” he said.

But Veasna’s supporters see things differently.

An unnamed LDP supporter gives an interview to VOA Khmer reporter on Techo Hun Sen's Boulevard in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, July 27, 2018. (Ky Mengly/VOA Khmer)

Leng, a 28-year-old government official who referred to himself as a “moderate supporter” of the LDP, said in an interview that despite the harsh language used during the campaign he “wholeheartedly” supports the LDP platform.

“To me, if there was no presence of Khem Veasna as the president one day, the party is still going on well as a whole and the LDP’s ideology particularly. The party really has its own ideology, and the ideology will never die,” he said.

But, he said, some party members were extreme in their views.

“Actually, some people who claimed they are LDP are so extreme ... I really don’t support this at all, but I think it is simple in the process of changing people’s mindsets.”

Sitting on the back of an old pickup truck with other men in their 30s, Heng Sokun from the northwestern province of Banteay Meanchey said he was excited to see the size of the crowd for what “used to be a minor party.”

“Firstly, we want to show our power. Secondly, we come to join by our heart and we want a collective stake as the owner of this country,” he said.

Sokun was a CNRP supporter since its dissolution last year when he joined the LDP. He said he made the choice so as to continue to participate in the electoral process.

“In my point of view, the League for Democracy Party has a good political attitude, and within the current [political] situation, we see that all supporters participate without any danger.”

Khat Than, another supporter from Kampong Speu province, said his participation was frowned on by his family, who saw the LDP as a “noisy party” and “incomprehensible”.

“It is important, as a human being, we have to listen because our first knowledge comes through the ears. When we listen, we think, we know right and wrong,” he said.

Than joined the LDP since in party’s early days. He believes in the party for having what he referred to “a unique system.”.

“They [CPP] give us Sarong and Krama, but they will not give us power,” he said, referring to traditional Khmer garments. “Power is the source of everything,” he added. “This mandate, we see that Sampoan [the LDP] is very active, maybe they will listen to us more? I do not know why, but this is unexpected.”