Ducking two more swings from the ruling party, the opposition CNRP on Sunday abandoned its election slogan and re-elected its senior leadership at a steering committee meeting in Phnom Penh.
The slogan—“Change commune chiefs who serve the party and replace them with commune chiefs who serve the people”—was deemed offensive and illegal by the ruling CPP, reflecting rapidly rising tensions ahead of June’s commune elections.
The government this year rushed through amendments to the country’s Law on Political Parties, giving it the legal power to dissolve opposition parties, including those that are led by a person with criminal convictions. The amendments compelled the resignation of conviction-riddled former CNRP President Sam Rainsy in February, and the subsequent promotion of his deputy, Kem Sokha, to president, and three senior lawmakers to vice president.
However, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said in a letter dated March 22 that the leadership shuffle contravened the CNRP’s own party rules requiring 18 months before the election of a new president after a leader resigns.
In response, the country’s main opposition party submitted amendments to its internal rules to the Interior Ministry last week, and met on Sunday at CNRP headquarters.
In a press release issued on Sunday, the CNRP said it had received a letter ahead of the meeting from the Interior Ministry about the party rule changes.
“After seeing and checking the content of the letter from the Interior Ministry, the party’s steering committee meeting again congratulated Mr. Kem Sokha as CNRP president…in accordance with the new Article 47 of the party’s bylaw,” the press release said.
The meeting also saw officials re-elect senior lawmakers Pol Ham, Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang as vice presidents, it added.
Mr. Chhay Eang told reporters after the meeting that the CNRP re-elected its leaders in order to conform to Interior Ministry directives.
The ministry will be notified of the leadership selected under the new party bylaws in a letter today, he said.
He added that the party had decided to give up its election slogan as part of a “compromise”—despite party officials previously saying the CNRP would refuse to abandon it, as it gathered nationwide attention from the ruling party’s attacks.
“Sometimes, we need to compromise. It’s not an important thing because competing in elections is not [about] this slogan. The important thing is the party’s policy,” Mr. Chhay Eang said.
“This slogan is just a verse to attract people’s interest…. The important thing is a fair election.”
Mr. Chhay Eang said the CNRP was not culpable for anyone who continued to use the slogan.
“The party has already decided. If the people still use it, it’s their right and the party won’t be responsible for them,” he said.
Bun Honn, an undersecretary of state at the Interior Ministry who is in charge of the CNRP bylaw case, refused to comment and referred the questions to ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak, who could not be reached for comment.