Cambodia’s electoral body said Friday it is weighing whether the opposition must modify a campaign slogan the ruling party has characterized as incitement and threatened legal action over, as the country gears up for local commune elections in June.
In a press conference detailing the preliminary list of candidates who will stand for commune chief this summer, Mean Satik of the National Election Committee (NEC) told reporters that officials are reviewing whether the slogan runs afoul of campaign laws.
“For now, the NEC has already received this information [on the CNRP’s slogan] and is considering how to resolve the issue in question when political campaigning begins” on May 20, he said.
In a statement earlier this week, the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) accused the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) of sowing “incitement and troublemaking” with its campaign slogan, adopted during an extraordinary congress session at the end of February.
The ruling party had said it would file a lawsuit against the CNRP if it does not modify the slogan, which reads, “Replace the commune chiefs who serve the party with commune chiefs who serve the people.”
At Friday’s press conference, CPP representative Chan Sok San reiterated the ruling party’s demand that the slogan be changed, but seemed to walk back from the stronger position taken by the CPP earlier this week.
“The ruling party must do whatever is necessary to protect security and social order, whether such a slogan affects it or not,” he said.
“In the name of the ruling party, a statement must be issued to protect against or prevent disorder ... This does not mean we are accusing the CNRP [of deliberately causing problems].”
Meng Sotheary, the CNRP’s director of legislation and electoral affairs, told RFA’s Khmer Service Friday that her party had no immediate plans to change the slogan or to defend its use in court against the CPP.
Any decision regarding the slogan, which “has nothing to do with incitement” because it does not name a party, would be made by the CNRP’s standing committee, she said.
As of Friday, some 300 CPP commune chiefs across Cambodia had signed letters accusing the opposition of using the “inciting” campaign slogan to fan “disunity,” according to a report by the Cambodia Daily, noting the similarity in language to recently approved legislation that could see whole parties dissolved for such behavior.
CNRP officials have warned that the CPP seeks to prevent the opposition from standing in the country’s June 4 elections through a variety of different measures, including the passage of the political party law approved by the National Assembly on Feb. 20, despite an opposition boycott of parliament in protest.
The new law bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party and forced former CNRP president Sam Rainsy—in exile since late 2015 after his conviction on defamation charges supporters say were politically motivated—to resign last month to preserve the party.
While the CPP denies orchestrating the letter campaign by ruling party commune chiefs, the complaints are nearly identical to one another, different only in the details of each chief’s list of achievements, the Cambodia Daily said.
It quoted CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay as saying he found it hard to believe that so many CPP commune chiefs would simultaneously and spontaneously make such public complaints without approval from the party leadership.
“The way the CPP operates, they would not do this kind of thing without permission from their leaders. So we assume it could be activity reflecting the original complaint by the ruling party,” he said.
The CPP won more than 70 percent of the vote and secured 1,592 of 1,633 communes in Cambodia’s 2012 local elections, held before the CNRP was formed. The opposition party won nearly half of the vote in the general election the following year.
Observers say the CNRP could give the CPP, which has ruled Cambodia for more than 35 years, a run for its money in the June polls—a race that many believe could foreshadow the general election in 2018.
Also on Friday, jailed Cambodian political analyst and social commentator Kim Sok told reporters that authorities had offered to release him if he pledged to support the CPP.
Kim Sok was arrested on Feb. 17 and charged with inciting social chaos and defamation because of comments made during a radio interview with RFA’s Khmer Service that Prime Minister Hun Sen believed implied his government was behind last year’s murder of popular political pundit Kem Ley.
On Friday, Kim Sok was summoned to Phnom Penh Municipal Court for a further inquiry into the charges against him, but the political analyst said the court did not ask him about his case because his lawyer had asked that the proceedings be postponed.
“The court did not inquire about anything—they wanted me to be a focal point to implement the political plan of the CPP for the next generation if I want to be released,” he said while speaking with reporters at the courthouse.
Kim Sok was unable to explain who had placed such a condition on his release or why he had been asked to represent the ruling party before he was loaded onto a van and returned to Prey Sar Prison, where he is awaiting his trial.
When asked about Kim Sok’s comments, CPP spokesperson Sok Ey San told RFA that the ruling party has plenty of supporters and did not require the political analyst’s services.
“This is simply personal pride—how important does he think he is,” he said.
“As for the CPP, I am of the opinion that we already have enough human resources, so we don’t need to request assistance from Kim Sok. Since the beginning in 1979 up to the present, Kim Sok has never shown up to work for the party.”
Wan-Hea Lee, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) representative in Cambodia, has called for a fair trial conducted by an independent court to determine Kim Sok’s guilt or innocence.
In 2015, the U.N. Human Rights Committee recommended that Cambodia refrain from prosecuting representatives from civil society for expressing their opinions and consider decriminalizing defamation.
Reported by Vuthy Tha and Sonorng Khe for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.