Grassroots Democracy Party Elects Old Faces

The Grassroots Democracy Party (GDP), a brainchild of “Khmer for Khmer” advocacy group leader Kem Ley, held its inaugural congress in Phnom Penh on Sunday, electing—unopposed—Mr. Ley’s close colleague Yeng Virak as temporary leader despite vows of a new style of politics.

In October, Mr. Ley founded Khmer for Khmer with Yang Saing Koma, the director of agricultural NGO Cedac, and Mr. Virak, the former director of the Cambodian Legal Education Center, in order to promote more democratic party politics in Cambodia.

Yeng Virak, left, speaks Sunday at the inaugural congress of the Grassroots Democracy Party in Phnom Penh, during which he was named the party’s president. (Khem Sovannara)
Yeng Virak speaks Sunday at the inaugural congress of the Grassroots Democracy Party in Phnom Penh, during which he was named the party’s president. (Khem Sovannara)

With a handful of other prominent civil society leaders joining them for public forums in the provinces to promote their cause, the Khmer for Khmer leaders said they would work to create new parties whose leaders are democratically elected.

On Tuesday, Mr. Ley reiterated that Sunday’s congress would be different from the carefully stage-managed events held by the ruling CPP and opposition CNRP over the years: by allowing its members—collected from communes around the country—to stand for election.

Yet when it came to the vote, only Mr. Virak, one of the more prominent faces in the activities of Khmer for Khmer over the past nine months, came forward, being duly named “temporary president” by the 103 people present.

“I would like to express my thanks for your trust in us in voting for us to fulfill this duty as the GDP temporary committee, as the president, deputy president and secretary-general,” Mr. Virak told his base afterward.

Sam Sundoeun, a former parliamentarian for the Sam Rainsy Party who defected in 2003 over complaints that the party was being run in a dictatorial style, was elected vice president of the GDP.

Sam Inn, the former director of the NGO Life With Dignity who was elected the party’s secretary-general, said in his speech that the party offered a fresh take on politics.

“For the GDP, it is a new way of working, from the bottom to the top—the members are important and make the decisions to select their leaders,” Mr. Inn said, promising to smash “the culture of veteran Cambodian politicians.”

“They just promote the ones who follow and flatter them,” he said. “They do not have to do that, if [someone] has done good work for the people, people will select him.”

Contacted after the event, Mr. Ley, who has removed himself from the GDP’s activities, said Sunday’s congress was only held to select a temporary leader to allow the party to start the process of registering with the Interior Ministry.

Once the party has recruited enough members to satisfy the Political Parties Law—and incorporate 100 commune-level micro-parties into the GDP’s fold—there was a chance that Mr. Virak could be replaced in a fresh election, he said.

“This morning was not the real establishment of the party. When they collect the 100 communes later this year, they will hold a first congress, and at that time, there will be candidates and different people who can stand,” Mr. Ley said.

“It is not like the CPP, where people just follow the boss. Everybody can play their own game, and I can say that the process of the election this morning was smooth and fair, even though I was not there,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Alex Willemyns)

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