Cambodia’s Ministry of Interior has ruled that the country’s opposition party violated its own by-laws by holding an extraordinary congress to appoint new leadership earlier this month, throwing its political legitimacy into question ahead of local commune elections in June.
In a statement yesterday, the ministry said that Kem Sokha’s appointment as president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on March 2 is illegitimate because the opposition failed to observe its own 18-month freeze on selecting leaders if the post becomes vacant.
Former CNRP president Sam Rainsy resigned on Feb. 11 in order to preserve the party in the face of a new ruling party initiated law that bars anyone convicted of a crime from holding the top offices in a political party, among other changes.
Thursday’s statement also called on the CNRP to dump its campaign slogan of “replace the commune chiefs who serve the party with commune chiefs who serve the people,” saying the phrase goes against Cambodia’s constitution, election laws and the spirit of multiparty democracy.
The CNRP convened its extraordinary congress on March 2 to amend some articles of its party by-laws and appoint Kem Sokha as president, along with deputies Mu Sochua, Pol Ham and Eng Chhay Eang.
Opposition officials say the CNRP was compelled to convene the congress and amend its statute before the new law on political parties went into effect, or risk being dissolved, because the law only provided it with 90 days to elect new leadership.
The amended by-laws removed the requirement of an 18-month moratorium and allowed for the senior-most deputy president to immediately take over as CNRP president in the event the post was vacant, but the Ministry of Interior ruled Thursday according to an older statute filed at the party’s launch in May 2013.
After the statement was issued on Thursday, CNRP chairman of the board of directors Yim Sovann submitted a letter to the Ministry of Interior requesting a meeting with minister Sar Kheng to discuss the ruling and seek a solution.
However, Ministry of Interior spokesperson Khieu Sopheak reiterated the ministry’s position Friday and said Sar Kheng deemed it only necessary to send an administrative level official to meet with the CNRP.
“What was mentioned in the [ministry] notification is upheld—we cannot hold a discussion that might validate [the CNRP congress],” he said.
“There cannot be any modification. [The CNRP] continues to violate its own [bylaws] as the basis. There is no exception or recognition. That is why there can only be a meeting at the expert level—not the political level.”
Sar Kheng has designated director-general of the Ministry of Interior Prak Sam Oeun to discuss the matter with CNRP officials on March 29 at the ministry’s office, Khieu Sopheak said.
The spokesperson said he could not discuss what action the ministry would take against the CNRP if it refuses to approve the validity of the opposition extraordinary congress.
On Friday, CNRP deputy president Eng Chhay Eang said the Ministry of Interior has recognized his party’s right to take part in elections since 2013.
He said that the CNRP had already notified the ministry about the modifications to its by-laws for selecting party leadership and “does not need the Ministry of Interior to reapprove its validity anymore.”
Eng Chhay Eang also said the CNRP won’t modify its motto and will permit party activists to use it while campaigning for commune elections slated for June 4 on the grounds that “it is just a slogan.”
Korn Savang, senior advocacy official for the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (COMFREL), told RFA that electing new leaders through an extraordinary congress is part of the internal affairs of any political party.
The CNRP should be free to modify its by-laws on the basis of whatever situation the party is facing, he added.
“Only if there are internal complaints or dissatisfaction within the party and a complaint is filed with the Ministry of Interior can the ministry either accept or not accept the case,” Korn Savang said.
“This particular issue is the party’s internal affairs, so the ministry cannot say whether it will accept [the CNRP’s validity] or not. Neither the constitution nor any existing law stipulates that the Ministry of Interior must accept any modified party by-laws.”
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 Sothearin Yeang for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.