The Interior Ministry said on Wednesday it would recognize Kem Sokha as CNRP president, but not the party’s three newly selected vice presidents, in the latest in a series of tussles over the opposition’s internal rules that critics say is designed to derail the party’s commune election push.
“The election of Pol Ham, Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang as party vice presidents by the steering committee on April 2, 2017 still does not comply with the new Article 47 of the bylaws of the Cambodian National Rescue Party because this election occurred more than 30 days from the day that Sam Rainsy resigned as the party’s president,” Interior Minister Sar Kheng wrote in a letter to Mr. Sokha on Wednesday.
Reached on Wednesday, ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the CNRP’s fate was in its own hands.
“We cannot tell them what to do,” he said. “They should look at their internal rules instead. They violated it themselves.”
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the party had fully obeyed the law, and said the ministry’s lack of specificity was unhelpful.
“Everything that we have done so far respects the legal regulation,” he said. “So tell us, what can we do?”
Triggered by a new amendment to the Law on Political Parties barring people with convictions from heading parties, Mr. Rainsy’s February 11 resignation was designed to minimize the CNRP’s exposure to legal battles with a ministry newly empowered to suspend political parties for “serious” offenses and to petition the Supreme Court for an offending party’s total dissolution.
In a snap congress early last month, the party passed new bylaws stipulating that the eldest vice president—in this case, Mr. Sokha—would immediately become president in the event of the resignation of a party president fewer than 18 months into a term.
The new bylaws also allowed the party to select multiple vice presidents within 30 days of the resignation, which it promptly did by elevating Mr. Ham, Ms. Sochua and Mr. Chhay Eang to the position. Analysts described the leadership reorganization as a bid to distribute possible targets for a government crackdown.
In a letter dated March 22, however, Mr. Kheng declined to recognize the new leaders, saying the party had failed to follow the process outlined by its old bylaws filed with the ministry.
That prompted the CNRP to submit its new bylaws to the ministry last week, and re-elect its new leadership on Sunday and renotify the ministry the next day.
General Sopheak said the only election of vice presidents that the government recognized was the one that occured on Sunday, which was far outside the 30-day window specified by the party’s bylaws. Documents approved by the vice presidents would therefore not be recognized, he said.
He denied that the CPP government was harassing its main opponent in the run-up to the June 4 commune elections.
“If we wanted to harass them, the party would be dissolved,” he said.
With Mr. Sokha departing on Wednesday on a 10-day fundraising trip to Australia and New Zealand, Mr. Sovann said the CNRP had no plans to meet with the ministry or shuffle its leadership to try to comply with the government.
“We are busy today with the election,” he said. “I think the whole country is the vice president of the CNRP.”
Political analyst Meas Nee said the ruling party appeared to be trying to isolate and possibly unseat Mr. Sokha, who was dogged for the latter half of last year by legal battles related to his failure to appear in court for questioning over a case of alleged prostitution.
“Maybe his case will be brought up again by the courts,” Mr. Nee said.
A social scientist employed on projects throughout the country, Mr. Nee said the CNRP’s grassroots organizing had grown in recent months in spite of an ongoing crackdown by the government.
“The only option that they have is to disturb senior leadership,” he said, thereby “weakening the machinery, the leadership, with the expectation that it might also disturb the CNRP’s local supporters.”
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