PHNOM PENH - Yang Saing Koma has seen his party co-founder assassinated, his country’s biggest opposition party systematically dismantled and the free press obliterated in Cambodia.
Yang, however, is pressing forward, despite the adversity and calls from former members of the now-defunct opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party that he boycott next month's election.
On Sunday, in a jovial public display of democratic principle, his Grassroots Democracy Party elected him its candidate for prime minister against two others — Secretary-General Sam Inn, and Siem Reap province head Khun Savoeun.
The ballot may have been a foregone conclusion performed with plenty of humorous nods to this fact from candidates and organizers, but Sam Inn said the predictability of the result was not what was important.
“What is important is that we can show to the public, we can show to the Cambodian people, that we need to start reform inside the political party first. That not only the party leader but every member can become candidate for prime minister,” he said.
“There is a lot of fear to participate in politics, but we would like to change it. We would like to normalize it that doing politics should be normal for every citizen. And if you would like to build a democratic society, you need to build your own institutions to be democratic institutions,” he added.
Sam Inn said boycotting the election would achieve little, as sooner or later the international community would accept the government, no matter how flawed the election.
Not participating would also increase the likelihood of the ruling Cambodia People's Party, or CPP, winning a two-thirds majority, enabling the party to change the constitution, he said.
Policy and principle-focused party
The Grassroots Democracy Party, or GDP, is a policy and principle-focused party that Yang Saing Koma said is determined not to let the cult of personality and confrontational politics of Sam Rainsy's dissolved Cambodia National Rescue Party distract it from reform.
“We don’t want to bring Cambodia to the past. We want to bring Cambodia forward, and we still see the space for us. And the main challenge for us is to present to the people that we are really an alternative, independent party,” Yang said after the vote.
The GDP has released a 125-point policy platform called the Green Book that prioritizes a peaceful transition of power, nation-building, national defense and international cooperation.
It also focuses on grassroots issues such as universal access to health care and education, and social security for women giving birth, the elderly and the recently unemployed. The abolition of the CPP party structure in the public service is another priority.
The party draws significant credibility from the more than two decades Yang Saing Koma has spent working with farmers as the head of the Cambodian Center for Study and Development in Agriculture.
Founder attends election
Mears Samnang Kuy, founder of Accountability Cambodia, attended Sunday's candidate election where he criticized senior party officials' failure to declare their assets, imploring them to do so before, not after, the election.
“It is a benefit for that, a benefit for those candidates,” he said. “Why? Because it can attract the public interest. The people want those integrity people.”
The GDP could also benefit from an ongoing CPP campaign to avoid a low election turnout by pressuring voters disillusioned by the country's authoritarian backslide to go to the ballot box.
In July 2016, GDP co-founder Kem Ley was murdered a day after criticizing Prime Minister Hun Sen over revelations Hun Sen's family controlled a fortune worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Last September, Kem Sokha, who took over the CNRP leadership after Rainsy retired from the position — having fled the country facing criminal charges — was arrested and jailed for alleged treason.
The CNRP, which Hun Sen accused of plotting a color revolution against him after it nearly beat him in the last election, was dissolved by the courts soon after Kem Sokha’s arrest, which coincided with the closure of almost all of Cambodia's independent news outlets.
That has left Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party with just a smattering of minor parties to compete with, many closely aligned to the CPP.
One of those, the Khmer National United Party, re-elected Cambodian political veteran Nhek Bun Chhay as its president on Saturday. Nhek Bun Chhay once served as deputy commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
In April, he was released from prison on bail after he was jailed in August 2017 on charges related to a 2007 drug case.