Hopes Pinned on Populist Appeal of Kem Sokha

[This story was originally published June 5, 2013.]

Prime Minister Hun Sen has made a sport out of sparring with, and ultimately defeating, opposition politicians over the past 20 years.

But political analysts said Tuesday that he faces a new kind of challenge from the acting head of the newly formed opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), Kem Sokha, who unlike the party’s self-exiled leader, Sam Rainsy, has more of the common touch.

–News Analysis

Although Mr. Rainsy is the CNRP’s candidate for prime minister, it is Mr. Sokha, the party’s acting president, who is leading the campaign for July’s national election and whose success, analysts say, will determine the fu­ture of the opposition movement.

His new role atop a united opposition—after the SRP and Human Rights Party (HRP) merged last year—is a particularly threatening presence to Mr. Hun Sen, said independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay.

Unlike Mr. Rainsy, who is perceived as an intellectual elitist who grew up and was educated in Europe before returning to Cambodia to join politics, Mr. Sokha is seen more as a man of the people who has built up support among Mr. Hun Sen’s traditional constituency of rural voters, according to Mr. Mong Hay.

“Judging from tones and substance of comments from the prime minister and leaders of the ruling party, it seems that the ruling party is not as confident as before,” he said.

“Between the two [Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha], Sokha has more charisma. He speaks the language of the common people and he has built up a network similar to that of the ruling party,” Mr. Mong Hay said, adding that Mr. Sokha’s role as director of the Cambodia Center for Human Rights (CCHR) between 2002 and 2007, when he often held grassroots symposiums in the provinces, has given him credibility as a populist politician.

Mr. Sokha’s provincial and pugnacious oratory style also provides the opposition with a stronger voice as it attempts to counter a barrage of nationally televised attacks from Mr. Hun Sen, agreed Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia.

“He uses a lot of simple words that are easy to understand, especially among rural people. He doesn’t use intellectual words, but words of the people. He is very outspoken and I think he responds to Hun Sen’s speeches in a more argumentative way that is easy for people to understand,” Mr. Panha said.

“The tone and the quality is almost the same [as Mr. Hun Sen],” he added.

Mr. Hun Sen’s own brand of populist politics—developed around improving infrastructure and assuring stability—has proved highly effective in garnering support. The CPP currently holds 90 of the 123 seats up for grabs in July’s national election.

Despite Mr. Hun Sen saying on Sunday that July’s election is a foregone conclusion, he does not seem to be taking victory for granted against Mr. Sokha and the CNRP, said Moeun Chhean Nariddh, director of the Cambo­dia Institute for Media Studies.

“I think because of the combination of these two parties, and because the prime minister has been able to neutralize power of Sam Rainsy, the main target now is Kem Sokha,” said Mr. Chhean Nariddh.

Mr. Hun Sen’s targeting of Mr. Sokha was highlighted last week when the prime minister threw his support behind calls for a mass demonstration against Mr. Sokha for comments he allegedly made claiming that Vietnam “staged” the detention and torture of thousands of Cambodians at Phnom Penh’s Tuol Sleng prison. Mr. Hun Sen said that the protest, which is planned for Sunday, could attract as many as 20,000 people.

It was the first time since 2003—when he called for a dem­onstration against comments erroneously attributed to a Thai actress claiming Thai ownership of Angkor Wat—that Mr. Hun Sen has asked people to take to the streets, and the first time he has targeted an opposition politician for such a protest.

Since he entered politics in 1993 as a lawmaker for the now defunct Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party, Mr. Sokha has become accustomed to defending himself against Mr. Hun Sen’s government.

In 1998, a travel ban was placed on Mr. Sokha after he made several speeches at an opposition rally in Phnom Penh that turned violent—a wave of anti-Vietnamese hysteria led to the beating deaths of four ethnic Vietnamese.

Mr. Sokha, who had failed to win a seat in Parliament as a candidate for the short-lived Son Sann Party in that year’s elections, appeared in court, where he denied inciting violence and was spared prosecution.

In 2006, Mr. Sokha, then the president of CCHR, was again called to court, along with four other rights activists, and charged with defamation for critical comments he made about Mr. Hun Sen’s signing of a controversial border agreement with Vietnam. The group, which included independent radio station owner Mam Sonando and union leader Rong Chhun, was held in pretrial detention for about a month before Mr. Hun Sen announced their release.

However, Mr. Sokha’s track record as a staunch opponent of Mr. Hun Sen came under scrutiny in 2011, when a recording of a 2007 phone conversation be­tween the two was leaked. In the tape, which was a major factor in the breakdown of opposition merger talks that year, Mr. Sokha is heard asking the prime minister how to poach members from the SRP.

Nonetheless, with a history of reaching out to provincial villagers, first as head of the CCHR and then as the president of the HRP, Mr. Sokha gives the opposition party a stronger footing among the vast majority of Cam­bodians living in rural areas, said Son Soubert, who replaced Mr. Sokha as the president of the HRP.

“While he was the leader of the HRP, his work was very effective. Sam Rainsy is very knowledgeable and could speak to intellectual and well-educated people, whereas Kem Sokha can talk to the less-educated people,” Mr. Soubert said.

The HRP was a minor surprise in its first national election in 2008, when it secured three seats in the National Assembly, but showed the strength of its grassroots organizing in the 2012 commune election, when it won 18 coveted commune chief seats, almost as many as the SRP, which came away with 22 commune chief posts. The CPP won the remaining 1,593 seats, showing how dominant the ruling party still is in the country.

But although Mr. Sokha may be more effective at appealing to the rural masses, who have been the base of support for Mr. Hun Sen and the ruling CPP over the past two decades, the current media environment will make it difficult for the opposition party to leverage his potential popularity, said Mr. Chhean Nariddh at the Institute for Media Studies.

“If he had access to the mass media like Hun Sen, it would make a very big difference,” he said. “But the problem is [the CNRP] doesn’t have this access.”

(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)

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