PHNOM PENH: Sin Sopheap’s office is in the dusty outskirts of Phnom Penh. The party he is now the president of – Reaksmey Khemara – did not even formally exist three months ago.
Still, just days out from the Cambodian election, he still thinks he has a chance to win a handful of seats, handing him negotiating power and a mandate in the country’s National Assembly.
“Whether we hope or not, we are nationalists, we have to show our name in the political field. Based on looking at our campaign from our activists in every city and province, we are hoping to win seven to ten seats,” he said.
This is an election dubbed a “one horse race” – the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is all but assured of an overwhelming majority. But at the starting gates on Sunday (Jul 29), 20 parties, many of them obscure and newly created like Reaksmey Khemara, will jostle for votes from Cambodians going to the polls.
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There is a long list of similarly sounding parties registered to run. It is confusing, even for avid political watchers in the country.
But this is what has been left in the wake of the legal dismantling of the country’s main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), last year.
As its leaders were jailed or exiled, critics said freedoms were under threat in the kingdom. But now Cambodia has suddenly found itself with more election participants than any time in the past two decades.
According to the government, more parties means more democracy. That is a notion dismissed by Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch.
“They don’t have the experience or the capacity to seriously contest with the CPP at the national level. They really become window dressing,” he said.
“The idea that somehow this is a more democratic exercise because you have more small parties, after destroying what was the one major party through what was a bogus court case, just doesn’t add up.”
Many voters may question why a lot of these parties exist. In reality most of them are new, poorly funded and unknown among the electorate.
But on the opposition side of the political spectrum, there is a genuine vacuum to be filled. And smaller parties are jumping at the chance to take the place – and perhaps some of the support – of the CNRP.
Enter the Khmer Will Party.
It was born out of the ashes of the CNRP, just three weeks before the cut off date for registering to stand in the election.
Many of its candidates previously ran for the CNRP – and their campaigning for change has a familiar tone.
Its president Kong Monika, a political novice but a member of an active political family, says a fresh slate could reignite the national contest.
He wants to be endorsed by senior opposition figures like Sam Rainsy and says he is annoyed that they continue to call for a boycott of this election.
“It is frustrating but as the young generation we are looking forward, we are moving forward,” he said. “We are not abandoning the CNRP, but we think the appeal for the election boycott is not a smart move to me. It’s a little bit contradictory to the concept of democracy.”
Even among those with a united goal of ending the CPP’s three-decade rule, it shows how deep the divisions are here. Having so many parties is unlikely to solve that.