Early this month, the opposition CNRP registered 11,572 candidates for June’s commune elections—one for every seat—in what’s likely to prove a bellwether for next year’s all-important national election.
A few days later, Senate President Say Chhum, a stalwart of the long-ruling CPP, signed off on legislation giving his government sweeping new powers to do away with any party over vaguely worded offenses, left to its own discretion to interpret. Prime Minister Hun Sen, facing his toughest test in a quarter of a century, unabashedly put the CNRP in his crosshairs when he ordered his party to draw up the amendments to the Law on Political Parties last month.
That has observers wondering whether the CNRP will live to see the commune elections at all, let alone the national poll next year. If it does, they say the opposition will have to drastically tone down its often fiery—sometimes racist—campaign talk. But it could also lose some critical swing votes in the process.
The CNRP has already started watching its words.
Party President Kem Sokha has been urging members to refrain from personal attacks on government and CPP figures. On Tuesday, at a prep meeting for the local elections, he instructed the party’s candidates to avoid talk of January 7, 1979, a date that politically divides many Cambodians as the day Vietnam either liberated the country from the Khmer Rouge or embarked upon a 10-year occupation during which its officials installed the CPP.
Meas Nee, a political analyst, said the opposition will have to go even further.
The amended party law allows the Interior Ministry and Supreme Court, widely seen as a CPP tool, to suspend or dissolve parties for a new list of vague offenses, including “subversion of liberal multiparty politics” and “incitement that would lead to national disintegration.” The CPP has already threatened to sue the CNRP for incitement over a campaign slogan urging voters to replace commune councilors who serve the party with those who serve the people.
The CNRP has so far held firm, refusing to abandon the slogan. But Mr. Nee said the party was likely to refrain from more than just talk of January 7.
“In the past, slogans against the Vietnamese could be accused by the ruling party as discriminative, but this time they can be accused as creating…incitement,” he said.
In the lead-up to the 2013 national elections, the CNRP whipped up some support by harping on popular suspicions that the government has willingly given up territory in the long-running demarcation of Cambodia’s frontier with Vietnam.
It has proved an especially sore point for the CPP, which seems to recognize that its historic ties with Hanoi are a genuine political liability. CNRP lawmakers would draw large, angry crowds on trips to the border and pepper their speeches with liberal invectives against “yuon” encroachment and migration. Many consider the word a derogatory epithet for the Vietnamese, though the CNRP disagrees.
“[The] CNRP might need to adjust its tactics by not mentioning the word ‘Vietnamese’ directly, by spelling out policy that can address the issue of migrants in general,” Mr. Nee said. “[O]nly referring to all migrants could…make people understand who they refer to. This way the CPP might find it difficult to accuse [the opposition of] inciting propaganda.”
Koul Panha, who runs the nongovernment Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said the opposition has already softened its talk on border issues since two of its lawmakers were arrested and convicted on related charges over the past two years.
With the new party law now in force, he said, “I expect the tone to get even more soft.”
That’s not likely to turn off most CNRP supporters, Mr. Panha said, but it could cost the party votes from those on the fence who might instead cast their ballots for someone else or, more likely, no one at all. Those votes could prove critical in provinces with tight races, and every seat in the 123-seat National Assembly is precious. Had the CNRP and CPP swapped only seven seats in 2013, the opposition would have won.
“Maybe some undecided voters, they need some very critical understanding,” Mr. Panha said. “They [the CNRP] need to touch their emotions, so critical comments are very important.”
Political analyst Lao Mong Hay, a former adviser to Mr. Sokha, agreed that a tamer CNRP could lose some swing votes.
“It’s possible,” he said. “The people want something specific and straight to the point.”
Prince Sisowath Thomico, a member of the CNRP’s steering committee, said the party will need to direct its members and candidates away from personal attacks to stay alive, but believed its supporters would stay both loyal and engaged “because the people are starving for change.”
CNRP Vice President Mu Sochua said it also mattered less what the party itself does or does not say now that social media is allowing more Cambodians to circumvent the government’s propaganda.
But none of the CNRP’s restraint will matter if it’s not on the ballot.
Only a few days ago, Interior Minister Sar Kheng intimated that Mr. Sokha’s appointment as party president earlier this month may have broken the party’s own internal rules, jeopardizing the CNRP’s chances of fielding any of its candidates come June.
There’s also the incitement lawsuit the CPP has threatened to lodge over the CNRP’s campaign slogan, the open corruption investigation against Mr. Sokha related to his alleged affair with a hairdresser, and the insurrection charges against other party officials over a 2014 clash at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park.
The government can push ahead with any of them whenever it wants, and use its new powers under the amended party law to suspend the party. With the CPP increasingly willing to suffer the West’s rebuke thanks to China’s growing financial largesse, it’s not unthinkable.
In the end, Ms. Sochua said, no amount of self-censorship can save the CNRP from a government with the power to bend the law to its will, and it was pointless to try too hard.
“They can interpret any way. If they don’t find anything today, they can find something tomorrow,” she said. “We will do whatever is in the interest of the nation, of the people.”
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