The Interior Ministry has shot down as “dishonest propaganda” a suggestion from a senior CNRP adviser that Interior Minister Sar Kheng would be welcome to stay on as deputy prime minister if the CNRP won next year’s national election.
Kong Korm, a retired opposition politician, appeared to strike a nerve when he said at a CNRP rally in Kratie City on Thursday that “if the CNRP wins the national election in 2018…we will keep Samdech Krala Horm [Sar Kheng] as deputy prime minister.”
The Interior Ministry released a statement on Friday condemning Mr. Korm’s speech as “dishonest propaganda” and accusing him of “using the name of Sar Kheng to cheat and cause confusion for political gain.”
“The claims of Mr. Kong Korm look down on the Cambodian People’s Party, which is the oldest political party that liberated the country and stays with people in every situation,” the statement says. “Mr. Kong Korm’s speech impugns seriously upon…Sar Kheng’s honor.”
Mr. Kheng has long been a favorite of the opposition, particularly during inter-party negotiations, and has been known as the “good cop” in a supposed good cop-bad cop routine carried out between him and Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Last year, CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay said “he’s a reasonable person, I think” about Mr. Kheng, who had broken from ruling party rhetoric by saying that a color revolution would only occur “because of inactiveness in our management.”
Observers have often speculated of factionalism within the CPP, with Mr. Kheng and his late brother-in-law, former CPP President Chea Sim, presenting a counterbalance to Mr. Hun Sen’s dominance. Those close to Mr. Kheng are also claimed to have been targeted by court action, including his former bodyguard Hun Hean and anti-drug chief Moek Dara, both imprisoned in drug cases.
The interior minister was one of the primary CPP representatives during talks with the CNRP following a year of protests over the contentious 2013 national election. Mr. Kheng was quoted in 2015 as saying that discussion between the two parties was “crucial,” though the so-called “culture of dialogue” deteriorated later that year.
Contacted on Sunday, Mr. Korm praised Mr. Kheng as a competent communicator and noted “he’s improved communities during his time” at the ministry.
Mr. Korm’s comments last week mark at least the second time a CNRP leader professed support for those across the political divide ahead of Sunday’s commune elections.
Government-aligned Fresh News posted an article on Wednesday, purportedly from military officials in Preah Vihear province, attacking CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann for promising to provide the military—a traditional ally of Mr. Hun Sen—with sophisticated weaponry if the opposition won next year’s election.
Defense Ministry spokesman Chhum Socheat said last week the opposition lawmaker’s remarks were “just for…cheating people for votes.”
Mr. Korm is a former adviser to Prime Minister Hun Sen and foreign minister who left the CPP to join the opposition Sam Rainsy Party when it was created in 1995. He served as the party’s president from 2012—originally taking over when the party’s founder, Sam Rainsy, left to establish the CNRP—until his resignation in 2015.