The ruling CPP launched a coordinated campaign against its main rival’s “inciting” campaign slogan with a barrage of largely identical complaints after the CNRP refused to abandon the tagline despite the threat of a lawsuit.
Government mouthpiece Fresh News on Tuesday night started posting letters from CPP commune chiefs taking offense to the campaign slogan the CNRP adopted last week for the upcoming commune elections: “Change commune chiefs who serve the party and replace them with commune chiefs who serve the people.”
By on Wednesday afternoon, Fresh News and a pro-government newspaper had posted 19 of the complaints, all from CPP commune chiefs in Phnom Penh. They varied by only a few details.
The commune chiefs say the CNRP’s slogan is an insult to everyone who voted for them, amounted to “incitement” and threatened to spark “local disunity.”
Though the complaints loudly echo the language the CPP used in a statement of its own condemning the slogan on Monday night, party spokesman Sok Eysan on Wednesday denied organizing the letters.
“It was a decision made by each commune chief,” he said. “It is the same issue—that’s why the statements are the same.”
The complaints ask only that authorities “find justice” for the commune chiefs. In its Monday night statement, however, the CPP threatened to take the opposition party to court for incitement unless it changed the slogan.
“Incitement” has over the years proved to be the government’s favorite word when arresting its most fervent critics and handing them lengthy prison sentences in cases widely seen as politically motivated.
On Tuesday, Mr. Eysan accused the CNRP of breaking the Law on Commune Administrative Management because its slogan ran counter to the law’s provisions requiring elected commune officials to serve all their constituents regardless of party affiliation. The law spells out the role and remit of commune officials; it does not prohibit general comment on their performance.
But some see a greater threat coming from legal provisions that do not even exist yet—but which likely will very soon.
Last month, the CPP-dominated National Assembly and Senate—in sessions boycotted by outnumbered opposition lawmakers—approved controversial amendments to the Law on Political Parties giving the government and courts broad new powers to suspend and dissolve whole parties over vaguely worded offenses left wide open to interpretation.
The new list of outlawed party actions include “incitement that would lead to national disintegration.”
The amendments will take effect any day, as soon as they are signed by Senate President Say Chhum, a CPP stalwart serving as Cambodia’s acting head of state in the king’s absence.
Despite citing the commune administration law the day before, Mr. Eysan did not rule out the use of the pending amendments.
“We cannot say anything until the court takes action and as of now we have not yet filed a lawsuit. It will depend on the legal experts who are studying the case,” he said on Wednesday.
Prime Minister Hun Sen has said publicly that he wanted the party law changed specifically to target the CNRP, the CPP’s only real competition in the June 4 commune elections and in the national elections set for the middle of next year.
Sam Kuntheamy, who runs the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, an NGO, said on Wednesday that the CPP could easily use the courts—which most Cambodians consider thoroughly corrupt—to sue the CNRP over its slogan with the amended party law, having already branded it incitement.
“For sure, yes, because the amendments will be in effect very soon,” he said. “They would use the new law to sue…so the CNRP will be in big danger.”
Mr. Kuntheamy said the recent complaints from CPP commune chiefs warning of “disunity” could also be used to bolster a legal case.
Despite the legal threats, the CNRP says it will keep using the slogan.
Just on Wednesday, it unfurled a banner bearing the tagline in big, bold letters at an event marking International Women’s Day in Phnom Penh.
Thuon Puth, who runs the CNRP’s working group for Preah Vihear province, stood by the slogan and said he had heard nothing from the CNRP’s national headquarters about not using it.
“We do not look down on anyone,” he said. “We only encourage commune chiefs to work for the people. There is nothing wrong with that.”
After leaving the celebration, CNRP Vice President Eng
Chhay Eang defended the party’s decision to stick with the slogan.
“It’s not something that the CPP, as a competing party that wants something, can just order—or command—to this party, that party. It’s wrong,” he said.
Only the National Election Committee can order the party to stop using the slogan, he said.
(Additional reporting by Ben Sokhean)