If his opponents have learned anything in the past two decades, it’s that Prime Minister Hun Sen does not do favors. He makes deals, breaks deals and plays chess.
So when both the ruling party and Mr. Sokha himself said that Mr. Hun Sen’s request to pardon the acting CNRP president—carried out by the king in a decree signed on Friday—was a benevolent act, analysts found it hard to believe.
“Unless Hun Sen is all of a sudden getting softer after a little more than three decades in power, there is undoubtedly a political motive behind the pardoning,” said Lee Morgenbesser, who recently authored a book on authoritarian democracies in Southeast Asia.
“If he was open to such overtures, in fact, the various appeals to release Cambodia’s political prisoners would have had the same effect.”
Human rights group Licadho places the number of political prisoners in the country at 27, including an opposition commune chief convicted on Monday, while opposition leader Sam Rainsy is both wanted for arrest and banned from entering the country.
Mr. Morgenbesser said that Mr. Sokha’s release was necessary to give legitimacy to commune elections to be held in about six months, but that the CPP surely did not think his ability to campaign around the country would be particularly damaging.
“Absent the participation of Sokha or Rainsy, the elections would be open to easy criticism for their lack of freedom and fairness,” he said.
“But I don’t expect this to be a problem for Hun Sen’s CPP. I am sure they calculated they could control the outcome of future elections despite the participation of Kem Sokha,” he added. “In short: legitimacy matters.”
However, others saw the pardon as being less about legitimacy than about countering the public relations storm cloud that had been forming over the prime minister and his son after alleged leaks of conversations with shifty political activist Thy Sovantha.
“I believe that we don’t have to look so far away for the reason for this pardon,” said Astrid Noren-Nilsson, a political scientist who has written extensively on Cambodia and is a senior lecturer at Lund University in Sweden.
“The immediate trigger appears to be the recent leaks of conversations between Thy Sovantha and senior government figures including Hun Manith, which further compromise the integrity of the court case against Sokha.”
Ms. Sovantha, who rose to social media fame as a protest leader for the opposition CNRP around the 2013 elections, turned on the party after recordings were leaked online allegedly of telephone conversations between Mr. Sokha and a mistress. She has since led campaigns calling for the acting CNRP president to step down.
Last week, a monthslong Facebook conversation allegedly between Major General Manith, head of military intelligence, and Ms. Sovantha were leaked in a YouTube video that scrolled through the conversation. Among other things, they appear to discuss ways to protest Mr. Sokha and provoke his supporters. Neither Maj. Gen. Manith nor Ms. Sovantha have publicly responded to the leak.
The government has said it has no plans to investigate a second conversation, posted to Ms. Sovantha’s Facebook page, which allegedly shows screenshots from a conversation on the Line smartphone app rumored to be between Mr. Hun Sen and the activist, who is promised $1 million to support her activities.
Ms. Noren-Nilsson said the CPP had also learned that leaving political resolutions to the last minute was a dangerous game, after Mr. Rainsy returned a week before the 2013 election and helped mobilize a wave of popular support that led to shock gains at the ballot box.
With Mr. Sokha still free pending a planned appeal to the Supreme Court and Mr. Hun Sen looking to shift the narrative away from the alleged leaks, “this seems to be rather good timing” for the pardon, she said.
“The leaked conversations indicate that sowing disunity between Sokha and Rainsy has been the focus of the CPP ahead of 2018, and the release of Sokha could do much work in that direction,” she said. “Already, it has resulted in more comparisons being made online and in other media between Sokha’s decision to stay in Cambodia and Rainsy’s decision to leave when confronted with court cases.”
Mr. Rainsy offered only a brief response on Monday when asked what Mr. Hun Sen may have been hoping to get out of the pardon, and whether he was worried about perceived disunity within the CNRP leadership.
“The situation is more complex than what some observers may think or suppose. You will see things more clearly as other ‘surprising’ events continue to unfold,” he said in an email, adding that Mr. Hun Sen’s reasons for the pardon “must be appreciated in an evolving context.”
“There was no condition attached to the recent royal pardon,” he said.
It is also possible that Mr. Hun Sen was simply seeking to relieve mounting pressure from within the country and among the diplomatic corps as the government has ramped up its attempts to smother the opposition, said Lao Mong Hay, a political analyst who had previously served as an adviser to Mr. Sokha.
“I think the more he put pressure on Kem Sokha, the more Kem Sokha appeared to get popular support,” he said, adding that foreign governments had also kept up pressure on the ruling party to drop charges against the deputy opposition leader.
The U.S. State Department said on Friday that it hoped the pardon would clear the way for a more positive political climate. “We expect that Kem Sokha and his political party will be able to freely and fully participate in the political process going forward,” department spokesman John Kirby told reporters in Washington.
Still, the effects of the ruling party’s efforts to suppress critics over the past two years, many of whom remain in prison, are unlikely to fade quickly, leading to watered-down rhetoric among activists and the opposition, Mr. Mong Hay said.
“To me, all the saga has been orchestrated by Hun Sen setting out to subdue the opposition,” he said. “The opposition and human rights activists will exercise a lot of restraint, otherwise they will be put in jail you see.”