Cambodian Journalists Alliance Association

Newly established Cambodia Reform Party seeks support of former CNRP ahead of the commune elections

A man drives past the former CNRP headquarter in Phnom Penh, May 24, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang
A man drives past the former CNRP headquarter in Phnom Penh, May 24, 2021. CamboJA/ Pring Samrang

The newly formed Cambodia Reform Party is lobbying former CNRP officials as well as other opposition parties to join forces in the hopes of making the CRP a credible opposition ahead of next year’s commune elections, said Pol Ham.

Ham, a former CNRP deputy president, last week requested the reinstatement of his political rights and joined the recently formed CRP. He is the highest level member of the former opposition to join one of the newly formed parties, and is expected to be confirmed as the party president —  which will be formally decided at its congress in October.

“We should not separate from each other to form small parties, which is not useful. We want to see the presence of a credible opposition party in Cambodia after the CNRP. I want to see unity among democratic [supporters] to compete with the ruling party,” he said.

Ham said that while he didn’t believe the CRP could truly replace the CNRP, he said he believed it to be best positioned to receive wider support.

“I will urge those who have been banned from politics to rejoin the political movement in order to join the commune elections in 2022…in the democratic society, we need to struggle through the election process,” he said.

Ham and Phan Chansak, a former CNRP committee member who is also Kem Sokha’s lawyer, became the latest opposition officials to ask for political rehabilitation. In 2017, shortly after Sokha’s arrest on charges widely believed to be politically motivated, the party was dissolved and 118 opposition officials were banned from politics for five years. But the government has permitted reinstatement upon request, and so far 24 officials have seen their political rights restored.

Ham said the party will try to gather all CNRP officials to join with CRP, though a number of party members have urged a united front and warned that forming new parties could inadvertently legitimize upcoming elections.

“The two top people Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha [still] cannot do politics…some people are waiting for the pressure from the international community but for me we should not wait to see the result come to us. We need to take action to see the result,” he said. “I mean that if the CNRP could be reinstated, we can dissolve this party because we do not want to separate our voices.”

CRP founder Ou Chanrath​​, a former CNRP lawmaker, said that the party has registered Ham as president and sent notice to the Ministry of Interior for approval. He echoed Ham’s words saying the party was hoping to bring more former CNRP officials onboard.

“We are talking with Yem Ponhearith and other senior officials to join the CRP, but they are in consideration as some are still barred from politics,” he said.

Currently, there are four parties headed by former CNRP members.

Several local leaders from the former CNRP said they have no interest in joining any newly formed parties, unless top leaders give their stamp of approval.

“How long does it take to build networks at the grassroots level?” pointed out Yim Phally, the former CNRP Kork Chak commune chief in Siem Reap province. “It is not easy. I would like to say that a democratic country needs to have a huge opposition party to join the election.”

Phally said that it was an individual’s right to join any political party that they wished, but said she has no wish to join.

“For me, I have never thought even to dream of joining any party beside the CNRP. It is useless as we already know the CNRP won 55 seats but it was still dissolved by using judicial power that abused the country’s constitution,” she said. “I want to live a normal life as today. I do not want anything to do with politics. Keeping silent is the best way to survive.”

Cambodia is set to hold its commune elections on June 5, 2022 and the general elections in July 2023.

Political analyst Em Sovannara said that the current situation mirrors that of 2018, when many small political parties were quickly established, creating a veneer of multiparty elections after the CNRP was dissolved. The ruling CPP won all 125 parliamentary seats.

“I think that even for those who have been banned from politics and ask for political rehabilitation and establish a new party, they will not get full support from people because they have yet built enough value or credibility to trust the people,” Sovannara said. “Their political power is still small and cannot compete with the ruling party unless they are backed by both Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha.”