The Interior Ministry confirmed on Wednesday that it would not recognize Kem Sokha as CNRP president or three other opposition lawmakers as deputy presidents, promising “further measures” that analysts say could sideline the party in upcoming commune elections.
Speaking after a meeting between the CNRP and ministry on Wednesday, Prak Sam Oeun, director-general at the ministry’s general department of administration, said the evidence was clear: The CNRP violated its own bylaws when it elevated its leaders at a snap congress earlier this month.
“We informed the CNRP that their extraordinary congress to elect Kem Sokha as president and Pol Ham, Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang as deputy presidents was against Article 47, paragraph 2 of the CNRP’s bylaws kept at the Interior Ministry,” Mr. Sam Oeun said. “We won’t recognize them.”
In a rush to replace former party President Sam Rainsy—who resigned last month to avoid repercussions from changes to the Law on Political Parties—with a permanent president who could sign off on its commune candidate roster, the CNRP first changed the bylaws of its party at the congress, then went on to elevate Mr. Sokha and the three lawmakers.
But according to the ministry, the party should have first submitted its internal rule change to the government before selecting new leadership, since the party’s old bylaws required a longer waiting period to change president.
The CNRP immediately panned the meeting on Wednesday and said it would keep its current leadership.
“It’s a private issue of our party, but the ministry interfered with us,” Mr. Chhay Eang said.
“Whether with the old bylaws or the new ones, [Mr. Sokha] is still party president,” CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann told reporters.
Mr. Sam Oeun claimed on Wednesday that the CNRP’s leadership selection process violated the newly amended Law on Political Parties, a hastily passed, vaguely worded set of new rules that critics say was aimed squarely at the ruling party’s biggest threat at the ballot box in two decades.
The amended Article 17 of the law stipulates that the “president and vice president of a political party shall be chosen by implementing statutes of that political party.”
Article 26 of the law, which was not changed in recent legislation, says that when an internal party rule is changed, “the concerned political party must notify the Interior Ministry in writing by enclosing new documents [stating] which [bylaw] had already been changed/amended.”
But the law does not specify the process for a combined change in bylaws and leadership, saying only that when a new president is chosen, the ministry should be informed by “enclosing a copy of the brief personal history of that new president with a 4×6 photograph attached.”
Mr. Sam Oeun declined to elaborate on which elements of the law were violated.
He also urged the CNRP to change its campaign slogan—“change commune chiefs who serve the party and replace them with commune chiefs who serve the people”—repeating the CPP’s belief that it discredited the hard work of its local leaders.
Mr. Sam Oeun told reporters to “wait and see” what action it would take next, promising “further measures.”
“We already asked them to change it,” he said. “We don’t dare say the next step now.”
The CPP has threatened to sue the CNRP if it does not formally renounce the slogan.
Mr. Chhay Eang said the party had already moved on from the phrase, but that the party would discuss the issue further after the meeting.
“Like we already said, we won’t put it in our party policy and we have not advised our activists to use it,” he said
Mr. Chhay Eang also said he was “not worried at all” that the government might use the newly amended Law on Political Parties to petition the Supreme Court to dissolve the party in advance of June 4 commune elections, arguing that an election without the CNRP would have no credibility.
“If we are dissolved, [the election] is finished,” he said. “How will the election work?”
National Election Committee spokesman Hang Puthea said on Wednesday the ministry’s spat with the party did not affect the CNRP’s ability to field candidates in the upcoming election. The party would only be barred from contention if it were dissolved, he said.