Siem Reap Province: An estimated 8,000 supporters of opposition Candlelight Party convened Saturday for an Extraordinary General Assembly to lay out the party’s policy platform and messaging for the July 23 national elections.
Candlelight announced a nine-point policy platform centered around improving social welfare benefits for Cambodians. The party introduced a symbolic five finger salute to emphasize five of its key policy points:
- Free health check-ups and treatment at public hospitals
- Providing 200,000 riel per month for citizens above 65 years old
- Raising the minimum monthly wage for garment workers from $200 to around $300 (1,200,000 riel) and 2 million riel for civil servants
- Increase the price of agricultural products by reducing the price of fertilizer and lowering loan interest rates
- Create 1 million jobs for youth within five years through increasing industrial factories and employment programs outside Phnom Penh
“Raising the five fingers is a sign that the party is committed to fighting all corruption to serve the people in a clean and fair manner,” said party co-vice president Son Chhay.
The party made structural changes to its internal leadership bodies, increasing its steering committee in charge of setting policy from 41 to 117 people and more than doubled its standing committee leading party day to day operations from 15 to 32 members. High profile union leader Rong Chhun, who announced in late January he would join Candlelight, was added to the steering committee.
Several of the party’s top leaders have faced threats and lawsuits from Prime Minister Hun Sen and the ruling CPP.
Candlelight’s secretary general Ly Sothearayuth said the party had suffered from politically-motivated harassment and persecution by powerful individuals — whom he would not name — seeking to disrupt the party’s operations.
“We will continue political advocacy to promote a better political environment for the election process and the call for releasing prisoners of conscience,” he said.
Top advisor Kong Korm resigned from the party after facing a lawsuit for an allegedly defamatory speech. Co-vice president Thach Setha remains detained after being arrested in January for allegedly issuing bad checks several years ago. And courts ordered Chhay to pay the CPP $1 million in damages, seizing two of his properties to compensate the ruling party.
Nevertheless, Chhay claims the actions taken against Candlelight’s leaders appear to have boosted support for the party, as demonstrated by the increase in members willing to accept leadership roles despite heightened risks.
“Supporters of the Candlelight Party continue to participate more and more, and this momentum will definitely make the Candlelight Party a success on July 23,” Chhay said. “We understand that [Candlelight] has to be led by a group, not by an individual and this is to ensure the party’s effectiveness as we need more power and ideas.”
The party has not announced a candidate for prime minister, saying a decision will be made two months before the election.
Chhay said he expected to see voter turnout triple in the national elections compared to the commune elections last year, when Candlelight turned out more than 1.6 million voters.
“We have more time to prepare compared with the commune election,” Chhay explained. “We have enough time to prepare our observers at the polling station and we have time to deliver our political message to the grassroot level.”
The party has relied on grassroots activism to spread its political message and will continue to do so in the run-up to the elections, said Candlelight deputy secretary general Sok Khimseng.
CPP spokesperson Sok Eysan said the ruling CPP was not surprised with any of Candlelight’s policies but said the CPP had already been raising wages for workers and civil servants.
“The opposition had repeatedly promised this in the past and the CPP is not worried about policy competition,” Eysan said. “[Implementation] may not be as easy as saying [a policy].”
61 year old Chhoeung Saran, a Candlelight’s Battambang provincial leader, said he has been with opposition parties for two decades and will continue to fight for change.
“I also am concerned about the political persecution which has happened to me for more than 20 years,” he said. “But I will not give up because I have been struggling for a longtime with the opposition to fight for democracy.”