Former Military General Begins Push for Minor-Party Mergers

Nhek Bun Chhay, a former military commander credited with helping destroy the once- powerful Funcinpec party, announced on Wednesday the first deal toward forging a coalition of minor parties ahead of elections this year and in 2018.

Though observers have speculated that some of the nine new parties created since the 2013 election have been formed specifically to dilute the opposition vote, the CNRP has said it is unconcerned by the threat.

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Nhek Bun Chhay, left, and Heang Rithy at a cooperation ceremony between their respective political parties on Wednesday in Phnom Penh (Hannah Hawkins/The Cambodia Daily)

Mr. Bun Chhay, who commanded the military in the mid-1990s before becoming a politician in Funcinpec and starting a yearslong power struggle with Prince Norodom Ranariddh, on Wednesday signed an agreement for his Khmer National United Party (KNUP) to work with the Cambodian National Justice Party (CNJP).

During a ceremony with CNJP President Heang Rithy at the Sunway Hotel in Phnom Penh, Mr. Bun Chhay said he hoped more such alliances would follow.

“Our goal is to merge together to join the national election in 2018, but for this work our party created a joint technical group to discuss details about how we help each other,” he said.

“Previously, we have discussed and had relations with six political parties,” Mr. Bun Chhay said, adding that another party, which he declined to name, had already committed to joining the non-CNRP opposition coalition.

The former general’s KNUP was launched last year after he left Funcinpec, which is once again headed by Prince Ranariddh. Mr. Rithy formed his party after leaving the Beehive Social Democratic Party, which was created in 2015 by popular radio owner Mam Sonando.

Mr. Rithy’s speech at Wednesday’s event employed the same populist rhetoric that has long been used by the opposition, saying Cambodia needed politicians who would truly protect its sovereignty—a nod to the widely held belief that the CPP is somehow beholden to Vietnam.

“Both parties will join hands to work to respond to the people’s desire for real independence and sovereignty. Especially, we will join hands to work hard for the implementation of the law on immigration and naturalization,” he said to a group of about 30.

Kounila Keo, a public policy analyst, said that minor-party mergers were likely to continue, “especially as we get closer to the election dates, and as minor parties formulate strategies to gain access to the legislature by attempting to upend pre-existing strongholds of the top two major parties,” she said.

“Minor parties will always have the potential to play spoilsport from the perspective of the CNRP, where they may end up splitting the anti-incumbency vote in favor of the CPP.”

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