The opposition CNRP will have a permanent new president by the end of the week, replacing recently resigned opposition leader Sam Rainsy, in order to ensure that the party can officially endorse candidates for commune elections in June.
The decision came as the party has scrambled to adapt to the CPP’s rewriting of the Law on Political Parties, which Prime Minister Hun Sen pushed partly to prevent Mr. Rainsy, who faces nine years in prison on convictions widely seen as politically motivated, from having any political rights.
The opposition CNRP’s decision to move its quinquennial convention to Thursday, rather than holding it on April 18 as planned, will allow its new president—widely expected to be acting President Kem Sokha—to submit local election candidates this coming weekend.
The decision came after three jailed opposition members resigned last week to avoid possible problems caused by the CPP’s legal amendments, which have been described as a “final blow” to Cambodia’s democracy.
The new rules, which must be approved by the Senate and king before coming into force, would give the government and courts the power to suspend or dissolve rival parties over a number of vague crimes, committed either by the organization or its leaders.
A permanent new president and deputies will be chosen at the convention, according to a CNRP statement, though the party remained tight-lipped on Sunday about who would fill those roles.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the candidates were yet to be decided upon. “We need a few more days to decide,” he said.
The announcement that the party convention had been rescheduled came after a telephone conversation was leaked online on Friday in which Mr. Rainsy, who ostensibly removed himself from the party, is apparently discussing the leadership changes with Mr. Sovann, one of his closest confidantes.
In the apparent conversation between Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sovann, leaked on Facebook, they discuss appointing multiple deputies to avoid creating easy targets.
“I just know the formula—the three vice presidents formula—is good, Sovann,” says a man whose voice sounds like Mr. Rainsy’s. “Do whatever to keep the balance of our party until election day because there is no other formula better than this one.”
“We put a cluster; it is easier. Don’t be just one; we’ll become a target,” he adds.
Such a structure would be a significant departure from the founding hierarchy, in which Mr. Rainsy was the president with Mr. Sokha as his sole deputy.
Mr. Sovann refused to say on Friday whether it was his voice on the call, but questioned the legality of the leak.
“Please ask the government and please ask the page owner how they can do this. Where is the law implementation? You know already what happens in countries with rule of law like the U.S., Europe,” he said.
Mr. Rainsy also declined to comment on the leak, but refuted any suggestion that advising the CNRP contradicted his resignation from the party.
“I have given up my position as CNRP president but not my mission to rescue my nation,” Mr. Rainsy said in an email.
Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua said on Sunday that the convention had been brought forward due to National Election Committee (NEC) rules stating that a permanent party leader is required to submit candidates for commune elections, which are set for June 4.
“According to NEC rules and regulations, a party president should submit the candidate lists,” Ms. Sochua said, adding that the lists have to be submitted between Friday and Sunday.
On Thursday, imprisoned CNRP official Meach Sovannara, parliamentarian Um Sam An and senator Hong Sok Hour handed in their resignations, their colleagues said.
Mr. Sovannara and Mr. Sam An, who are both serving lengthy prison terms on charges widely perceived to be politically motivated, cited “personal reasons” in their resignation letters sent to the CNRP’s secretariat, said Pol Ham, chairman of the party’s steering committee.
Mr. Sovannara is serving a 20-year prison sentence after being convicted of insurrection for his involvement in a 2014 protest at Phnom Penh’s Freedom Park. Mr. Sam An was sentenced to more than two years in prison last year over Facebook posts critical of the government’s demarcation of the border with Vietnam.
Opposition senator Hong Sok Hour, who was jailed in August on the prime minister’s orders after an online video showed him presenting a fake diplomatic treaty with Vietnam, also stood down on Thursday, said Teav Vannol, a senator and acting president of the Sam Rainsy Party.
Mr. Sok Hour explicitly cited the new amendments and the risk they posed to the party, which merged with the Human Rights Party to form the CNRP in 2012 but still holds seats in the Senate, Mr. Vannol said.
“They have a reason to go after the Sam Rainsy Party because Hong Sok Hour right now is in prison. That’s the reason why he resigned,” Mr. Vannol said.