Cambodia’s minister of the interior on Tuesday questioned the legitimacy of the opposition’s newly appointed leadership, saying their promotion may violate internal regulations and could prevent the party from running in upcoming commune elections.
Speaking at a highway ribbon-cutting ceremony in Kampong Speu province, Sar Kheng said the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) might have infringed on a mandatory grace period by recently replacing exiled former president Sam Rainsy.
“What I have heard is that under the CNRP’s previous statute, the position of the president of the party would have to be left vacant—if the president was absent—for no less than 18 months,” the minister said in an address carried by Bayon radio station.
“Nonetheless its party congress was convened to elect the new president in two months, which fell short of the required 18 months. How could that be possible? I guess they might have breached their party statute.”
The CNRP convened its extraordinary congress on March 2 to amend some articles of its party statute and appoint Kem Sokha as president, along with deputies Mu Sochua, Pol Ham and Eng Chhai Eang.
Former CNRP president Sam Rainsy has been in exile since late 2015 after his conviction on charges of defamation that supporters say were questionable rulings by a court system beholden to Prime Minister Hun Sen.
He resigned as CNRP chief on Feb. 11 in order to preserve the party in the face of a new law that bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party, among other changes.
The law, which was approved by the National Assembly on Feb. 20, passed with 66 votes by the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), despite a CNRP boycott of parliament in protest. It was signed into effect last week.
Sar Kheng said Tuesday he is weighing the situation and warned that if he finds the CNRP to have violated its statute by appointing new leadership, “it will be hard for the party to be recognized.”
“Other parties might take issue with [such a violation] as well,” he said.
“The CNRP may have referred to the new law on political parties as its [reason for convening its party congress] … but that might not be correct. A clear decision will need to be made about this.”
‘Compelled’ to convene
CNRP deputy Eng Chhai Eang told RFA’s Khmer Service Tuesday that his party was compelled to convene its extraordinary congress and amend its statute before the new CPP-initiated law on political parties went into effect, or risk being dissolved.
“According to the new law on political parties, we were given only 90 days to elect our new leaders, so we were left with very few options,” the deputy said.
“We were compelled to rearrange our party apparatus to suit the situation, even though our party statute stated that such arrangements shouldn’t be made unless the president had been absent for 18 months,” he said.
“The new law required our party to have a president [within 90 days].”
Sam Kuntheamy, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC), told RFA that the CNRP could be seen as illegitimate if it is found to be in breach of its party statute.
But he called for compromise, noting that the country’s June 4 commune elections are rapidly approaching.
“This case should be treated as an extraordinary and politically motivated one,” he said.
“A new president is needed to lead the party. I think the ministry of the interior should base its consideration into this matter on practical circumstances.”
Also on Tuesday, Kem Sokha met with CNRP commune chief candidates at the opposition headquarters in the capital Phnom Penh, telling them he is confident the party will be able to implement its political platform after making gains in local polls.
He stressed that the CNRP is committed to “improving the lives of all people” through a decentralized power structure.
“No matter what order is rendered from the top, if it badly affects our people and national interests, the CNRP commune councilors shall not implement it,” he said.
Kem Sokha said the CNRP would honor a pledge to provide all senior citizens with a stipend of at least 40,000 riel (U.S. $10) per month and work to “make Cambodia a better place to live.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan told RFA Tuesday that the ruling party is “impressed” by the CNRP’s goals, but should not be discounted ahead of the upcoming elections.
“The CPP has set out and implemented its political platform,” he said.
“Over the past six months, the CPP has done a lot to improve public services and we will continue to do better.”
CNRP officials have warned that the CPP seeks to prevent the opposition from standing in the June elections through a variety of different measures, including the passage of the political party law.
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 may foreshadow the general election in 2018.
Reported by Neang Ieng and Moniroth Morm for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story erroneously stated that the National Assembly approved the bill on Feb. 20 with 44 votes by the CPP.