Kem Sokha is nothing but confident that his recently formed Human Rights Party is going to make a huge splash at the polls during the 2008 national election.
Certainly, the HRP has grabbed its fair share of headlines lately with a number of high profile officials joining the party and by packing the indoor arena of Phnom Penh’s Olympic Stadium for its inaugural party congress July 22.
But despite all the attention, the party’s success is far from assured as it looks to find a niche in the political opposition—a sector long dominated by the SRP.
Kem Sokha acknowledged that his party has a lot of work ahead, but he believes his HRP has an ace up its sleeve: himself.
“We can [compete] because many of the people know me already. My party is new, but I am not new,” he said in an interview recently. “Right now I think that we are between number one and number two…. It’s not number three.”
In recent years, Kem Sokha has been known primarily as a human rights defender, but he is no newcomer to Cambodian politics. Before taking up the presidency of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights, he served as a senator for Funcinpec. Prior to that, he headed the National Assembly’s human rights commission as a lawmaker for the now defunct Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party.
“Our objective is the empowerment of the people,” Kem Sokha said of his new party. “Most of the Cambodian people are poor because they lose their power, and the Cambodians who are rich, it’s because they have power,” he said.
Kem Sokha said his party plans to give that power back to the people by reducing the number of land concessions and turning the property over to the poor. The party also aims to introduce a steeper tax on large tracts of undeveloped land to discourage speculation by the wealthy.
The HRP has also pledged that if it wins the election it will do away with the proportional representation voting system and will impose term limits on the position of prime minister.
“If you look on the history of Cambodia, when the Cambodian people want to change the leader…they did violence, they did war, they did coup d’etat—they never use the democratic process,” Kem Sokha said.
The task of getting his party’s message out to the people has been aided by Kem Sokha’s new hour-long radio program appearing daily on FM 105 Beehive Radio, but the HRP is still at a disadvantage compared to the SRP, which has similar economic and social policies and a 10-year head start in politics.
To date, the HRP has only opened four provincial offices, Kem Sokha said, and continues to open one each week. At that rate, it will be December before the party has gone nationwide, and that doesn’t include setting up offices on the district and commune levels.
“Time is a very important factor,” SRP President Sam Rainsy said of his own party’s rise in popularity.
“We now have members of parliament; 2,600 commune councilors; provincial, district and commune councils. This network is what makes a party strong,” he said.
Funcinpec Second Deputy President Prince Sisowath Sirirath said he was unsure if the HRP is a party to be reckoned with, but added that Kem Sokha is “a very good politician, a very outspoken man.”
Chea Vannath, former president of the Center for Social Development, agreed. “[Kem Sokha] knows how to speak the language of the people,” she said.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap, on the other hand, found little to praise about Kem Sokha’s politics but did admire his bravery.
“Kem Sokha has just a similar ability in working as other lawmakers,” Cheam Yeap said. “Kem Sokha lacks experience. He’s brave, but he doesn’t have any strong strategy to win the election.”
SRP lawmaker Son Chhay, who was also a lawmaker for the BLDP, said that he recalls Kem Sokha being an ambitious politician, but not necessarily a good leader.
He added that the SRP has noticed how warmly the HRP has been received by the ruling CPP, which has led the SRP to suspect that Kem Sokha is working to split the opposition vote.
“We strongly and clearly believe that he is playing the ruling party’s, the CPP’s game,” Son Chhay said. “[He] does not have the best interests of the country and the people at heart,” he added.
Kem Sokha denies that he is working in the interests of the CPP or Prime Minister Hun Sen. “I can swear…I will not sell my conscience,” Kem Sokha said. “I work for my people. I sacrifice everything for my people, for democracy. I know Hun Sen is not a good leader —I cannot follow him,” he added.
But the doubts still remain about Kem Sokha’s motives for forming a party, which he will have to overcome if the party is to succeed, said Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.
“Some voters and analysts say that [Kem Sokha] divides the opposition,” Koul Panha said, adding that Kem Sokha has never adequately explained why he created a party that many think will end up assisting the CPP at the polls.
Kem Sokha, however, explained that he created his party because he believed that Funcinpec and the SRP have been growing too slowly to have a chance to defeat the CPP before 2025.
But the SRP made significant gains in this year’s commune election, taking nearly 25 percent of council seats nationwide—about double what it won in 2002.
Hang Puthea, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free Elections in Cambodia, predicted that if the HRP proves to be a well-run party, it will be Funcinpec—which took a beating at the ballot box in April—that will suffer most. The SRP is less likely to lose voters because it is a more cohesive unit, he said.
Regardless of all the reforms he would like to introduce and all of the internal regulations he has created to make the HRP distinct, Kem Sokha said he is still realistic: People don’t really care about political platforms when they turn up to vote.
“The Cambodian people vote for who they trust,” Kem Sokha said. “The people know me, the people know Sam Rainsy. The people trust me or they trust Sam Rainsy—I don’t know who they trust more.”
(Additional reporting by Yun Samean)