In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. The age-old adage has held true during Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 31 years in power, as the squabbling of his myopic rivals has neutered the strongest attempts to depose him.
Standing atop a party machine that has remained intact since the early 1980s, Mr. Hun Sen has relied on the CPP’s unity as he has taken a long-term approach to crushing dissent, prepared to appear weak as he pokes egotistical rivals to turn on each other.
It handed him the 1998 election, when a splinter party created by Sam Rainsy robbed Prince Norodom Ranariddh’s Funcinpec of the majority, as well as the 2003 election, when Mr. Hun Sen wooed the prince away from Mr. Rainsy’s embrace.
So the July 2012 merger of the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party (HRP) into the CNRP—after abysmal showings at the 2008 election—was viewed by many observers as yet another doomed exercise.
Yet almost four years later, the party remains intact, avoiding the traps of the past despite serious differences of opinion between Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha. For Mr. Hun Sen, they form an unfamiliar adversary with commune elections now only one year away.
“So far, things are getting stronger and stronger,” said Prince Sisowath Thomico, one of the few CNRP officials neither from the SRP nor the HRP. The former Funcinpec official said the party’s cohesion was not a small success given the strains he observed as late as 2013.
“The main difference was the HRP had very strong bylaws and rules within the party, whereas the SRP relied entirely on the president, so that whatever Sam Rainsy would do was right,” he said. “Kem Sokha and the HRP broke those old working methods in the CNRP.”
“Here’s one good example: Before May 26, before the arrest attempts by the government on Kem Sokha, Sam Rainsy had wanted Kem Sokha to flee to a foreign country for safety,” Prince Thomico said.
“Kem Sokha replied that, no, he could not leave the country because it would be a bad sign for the people having both [CNRP] leaders leaving the country after being threatened by the government,” he said.
“We had a meeting of the permanent committee and a video conference with Sam Rainsy,” he added. “There was a discussion …and the permanent committee decided Kem Sokha should stay in Cambodia. So there is more collective decision-making now.”
It was not the first time Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha split on an important strategic issue since their party surprised many during the 2013 national election by winning 55 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly—up from a total of 29 seats secured by the SRP and HRP in the previous election.
With both Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha calling for a new election and promising not to join the Assembly without serious concessions, a deal was suddenly struck in July 2014—supported by Mr. Rainsy but to the chagrin of others.
Mr. Sokha grimaced as Mr. Hun Sen and Mr. Rainsy shook hands to seal the deal. In March last year, he offered a frank assessment of the accord in a speech to CNRP supporters in the U.S.
“I was not happy with the result of the negotiations, but I respected the CNRP’s policy,” Mr. Sokha said. “We are patient, and we swallow gravel and rocks in order to continue to make our unity stronger.”
In the months after the deal, Mr. Rainsy’s awkward dalliance with Mr. Hun Sen—the two jointly presided over a Khmer New Year ceremony and posted photographs to Facebook of their families dining together—put further strains on the partnership with Mr. Sokha, whom Mr. Hun Sen was simultaneously pursuing over claims he plotted a coup.
The dalliance died when a two-year jail sentence for Mr. Rainsy was enforced in November, sending the opposition leader back into exile in France. Then rumors emerged that Mr. Hun Sen was sweet-talking Mr. Sokha to convince him that Mr. Rainsy’s time as CNRP leader was up.
Claims of Mr. Hun Sen’s sudden switch in fancies and his unsuccessful attempts to convince Mr. Sokha to supplant Mr. Rainsy as the opposition leader were acknowledged by Mr. Rainsy in an interview with Radio Free Asia last month.
“It also happened to me,” Mr. Rainsy said. “Hun Sen used to suggest that I kick Kem Sokha out of the CNRP, but I refused to do so. So it is the same strategy. There were surely moves against me. But we will not split up, because we want to unite.”
Mr. Rainsy did not respond to requests for comment, and Mr. Sokha, avoiding arrest attempts related to an alleged extramarital affair, has not been giving interviews while in the safety of the CNRP’s headquarters.
Even the pair’s approaches to arrest threats have revealed their opposing styles, said Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles.
“It’s like one of those marriages where you still can’t tell whether the couple will live happily ever after, but so far they’ve stuck together, maybe for the sake of the children?” he said.
“Or maybe it’s for the sake of the spoils?” he added. “Clearly, there’s a lot at stake either way. They know that divided they fall, so they have to keep on keeping on.”
Mr. Ear, the author of “Aid Dependence in Cambodia: How Foreign Assistance Undermines Democracy,” said the union could still fall apart, and that the politics of ego had struck suddenly before.
“If one side always thinks he’s right, behaves dogmatically, and refuses all input, then divorce is inevitable. But don’t all politicians behave this way?”
However, Kem Monovithya, Mr. Sokha’s daughter and the CNRP’s deputy head of public affairs, said that while there had been disputes, the two leaders “are not petty individuals and do not hold on to grudges.”
“We have differences that can be turned into strengths or destruction, [but] we have turned them into strengths mostly. We have common values, that’s very certain, but we differ in strategy sometimes,” she said.
“I see this diversity in strategy as an asset to the party’s longevity,” Ms. Monovithya added. “Seeing past patterns, CNRP understands unity among those who want change is the absolute No. 1 ingredient we must have to push for change.”
The view was shared by other party officials, who said Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha’s decision-making powers had truly been made subservient to the processes of the party.
“When they have different ideas, it’s not important. It depends on the permanent committee and how many people vote to support to each one,” said CNRP lawmaker Mao Monyvann, who long worked for the SRP before defecting to the HRP. “They can discuss things…but it is the permanent committee that decides.”
“The way I look at it,” added Keo Phirum, a lawmaker who joined from Mr. Rainsy’s SRP, “we are no longer two parties. It’s a very successful coalition, and we have become one true party. We are all working together toward the next elections.”
Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy who observed the 1993 U.N.-led election, said the survival of the union was without precedent over the past 23 years.
“The coalition between the SRP and the HRP is rather unique in post-UNTAC Cambodia. The only other workable political coalitions have been those formed with the CPP and it was always clear they were inherently unstable,” he said.
Mr. Thayer said he believed the CNRP partnership appeared set to continue through the 2018 national election.
“Sam Rainsy, however, must always be at the centre of attention and does not appear willing to subordinate himself to the leadership of anyone else,” he said.
“Kem Sokha appears more practical and willing to work with Sam Rainsy to achieve common objectives. They are likely to continue to work together if they succeed in 2018; but…if the CNRP does poorly or is repressed at the next national election, it could fragment.”
Prince Thomico, too, said that the glue binding the CNRP was the hopes pinned on success in the July 2018 national election—hopes reliant on unity between the party’s leaders.
“If they split, it would be the end [of] the hope, as neither Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha could expect to win by themselves. So it’s in their common interest to stay united,” he said. “This is stronger than divisions.”
(Additional reporting by Sek Odom)