Cambodia’s Opposition Awaits Court Ruling on Campaign Slogan

cambodia-son-chhay-prey-sar-march-2017.jpg CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay speaks with reporters in front of Prey Sar Prison in Phnom Penh, March 17, 2017.

Cambodia’s opposition party will stop using a slogan the ruling party has characterized as incitement if the country’s courts rule against it, a lawmaker pledged Friday, as the country gears up for local commune elections in June.

Speaking to reporters during a visit to Prey Sar Prison, where several opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) activists and lawmakers are jailed, CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay said his party would honor any court decision on the slogan, which he noted had become popular with the public.

“If the courts or competent authorities find the slogan to be problematic, the CNRP will follow such a decision,” he said.

“We are not obstinate. The message in the slogan has already made its way to people of all walks of life. There is no way we can retract it. Nonetheless, the CNRP will not include the slogan in its five-point political platform for the upcoming election [if ordered by the court].”

In a statement last week, the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) accused the 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.”

Some 300 CPP commune chiefs across Cambodia have signed letters accusing the opposition of using the campaign slogan to fan “disunity”—language similar to that used in a recently approved legislation which could see whole parties dissolved for such behavior.

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said Friday he was skeptical of Son Chhay’s pledge and did not expect the opposition to stop using the slogan entirely.

“We welcome such a move, but we are wary that it might be temporary only,” he said.

“When the opportunity avails itself, I believe, he will use the slogan again. To prove it to us, he has to make sure the slogan is removed from the CNRP’s five-point political platform. Unless the CNRP moves to a four-point political platform, we will remain unconvinced.”

Last week, Wan-Hea Lee, the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) representative in Cambodia, told RFA’s Khmer Service she saw no problem with the CNRP’s use of the slogan and was unaware of any legal basis the CPP might have for threatening the opposition with a lawsuit.

Political observers say the reason the CPP has threatened to file a lawsuit against the CNRP is because the ruling party is afraid the slogan will convince the public to vote for the opposition, despite CPP claims that the slogan is offensive to its commune councilors.

Local elections are slated for June 4 and will see candidates vie for 1,646 commune councilor seats across Cambodia. Twelve political parties—including the CPP and CNRP—are authorized by the National Election Committee (NEC), the country’s top electoral body, to compete in the polls.

CNRP legitimacy

CNRP officials have warned that the CPP seeks to prevent the opposition from standing in the 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.

The CNRP held its extraordinary congress session in part to amend its statute and appoint Kem Sokha president of the party in Sam Rainsy’s place, in response to a clause in the political party law that would have required them to replace their leadership within 90 days or risk being dissolved.

Earlier this week, Cambodia’s Minister of the Interior Sar Kheng said Kem Sokha’s promotion may violate CNRP bylaws requiring a grace period on appointing a new president of 18 months and could threaten the party’s legitimacy—preventing its candidates from running in the June commune elections.

On Friday, Son Chhay dismissed those claims, saying Kem Sokha’s appointment did not violate the party’s bylaws and adheres to requirements under the new political party law.

“The CNRP’s statute does not prohibit the party from electing a new president,” he said.

“The new law on political parties also requires parties to elect new presidents within 90 days of the former president’s absence. Our newly elected party president is recognized by Prime Minister Hun Sen, so I don’t see anything wrong with our party legitimacy.”

Reported by Moniroth Morm and Vuthy Tha for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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