Government Deems Kem Sokha’s Presidency Illegitimate

Interior Ministry officials said the CNRP’s promotion of Kem Sokha to party president and three officials to vice president violated internal party rules, issuing vague threats of legal consequences that could potentially imperil the standing of the opposition party’s candidates ahead of June commune elections.

In a letter sent on Wednesday by Interior Minister Sar Kheng to CNRP executive committee chairman Yim Sovann, he said the party’s reshuffle, which came about two weeks after Sam Rainsy resigned as party president, violated the party’s own bylaws, which mandates an 18-month gap before selecting the leader unless the position becomes vacant within 18 months of a national election.

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Interior Minister Sar Kheng gestures toward deputy opposition leader Kem Sokha in 2015 at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh, where the two met to discuss recent political issues. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

The letter did not specify what action the government would take, and ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak on Thursday was cryptic about why the internal infraction merited government attention.

“Whether they take action or not, it’s not the ministry’s decision, but it is in the law,” General Sopheak said, declining to specify which law—if any—had allegedly been violated.

“What we told them is enough,” he said. “They will understand it. For example: There is a ghost in there, please don’t go inside. If you go, the ghost will haunt you.”

The letter also took aim at the opposition’s campaign slogan for upcoming June commune elections: “Change commune chiefs who serve the party and replace them with commune chiefs who serve the people.”

“This slogan has content that violates the principle of 1993 Constitution, Law on Political Parties, Law on the Election of Commune/Sangkat Council, Law on the Administration of Commune/Sangkat, and especially liberal multiparty democracy in Cambodia and the principle of a proportional [electoral] system,” Mr. Kheng wrote.

Gen. Sopheak warned that the slogan would cause “national disintegration.”

“We just see commune chiefs who serve the people,” he said. “There are no commune chiefs who serve the party.”

The general said the ministry had yet to decide whether it would back its “advice” with punitive consequences.

“Change it or not, it is their issue,” he said, seeming to return to the metaphor of ghosts for the law. “If the ghosts haunt, they’re the ones who will haunt you, not the Interior Ministry.”

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President Kem Sokha speaks to party officials during a meeting in Preah Sihanouk province in January, in a photograph posted to his Facebook page.

Mr. Sovann, who is also the CNRP’s spokesman, said on Thursday that the party had drafted a response requesting to meet with Mr. Kheng or a ministry representative, but declined to comment further.

When the party rushed to appoint Mr. Sokha and his three deputies earlier this month, they did so because the Law on Political Parties requires a permanent president to endorse commune councilor candidates whose names had to be sent to the election committee by the first weekend of the month, according to one of those new deputies, CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua.

If the government were to deem Mr. Sokha’s presidency illegitimate, the submission of those candidates might become invalid, said political analyst Cham Bunthet, who believed the opposition’s position in the June elections was doomed one way or another.

“If [the CPP] allows the CNRP in this election, they could lose half of their grassroots power,” he said, adding that the ruling party might invite the opposition back to the negotiating table to quiet international criticism after the vote.

“It’s a very smart, very evil game,” he said. “That’s how politics are played in this country.”

(Additional reporting by Ben Paviour) 

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