CNRP President Sam Rainsy said on Sunday that the government’s apparent plans to dissolve his party would make Cambodia an official one-party state, but insisted it would do nothing to knock him from the forefront of the country’s opposition movement.
Having thus far failed to split the CNRP, the product of a fraught merger between the two largest opposition parties in 2012, Prime Minister Hun Sen last week promised to change the law to force the dissolution of any party whose leaders commit “serious mistakes”—a clear reference to Mr. Rainsy and the CNRP. The CPP said on Friday it hoped to pass the amendment in April, in time for June’s commune elections. National elections are due next year.
Mr. Rainsy faces a defamation conviction widely seen as politically motivated and has been barred from returning to Cambodia—he lives in Paris—on the grounds that his return would “cause trouble.”
Though Mr. Hun Sen’s CPP has ruled the country for more than 30 years, Mr. Rainsy on Sunday said amending the Law on Political Parties as the prime minister wants would shatter any illusions the country maintains of being a multi-party state.
“This law aimed to institutionalize a one-party system would be tailor-made for me since the CNRP is the only opposition party represented at the National Assembly and the only party that can defeat the CPP,” he said via email.
Yet should the CPP pass the amendment—the ruling party has the National Assembly numbers to do so—Mr. Rainsy said it would have little practical impact on the political scene.
“Whatever my position in the party, I remain the symbol and embody the spirit of resistance to the autocratic and corrupt Hun Sen regime, and this is what matters in the minds of the Khmer people,” he said.
When Mr. Hun Sen named CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha the Assembly’s new minority leader and his designated “dialogue partner” late last year in an apparent bid to sideline Mr. Rainsy, the CNRP president similarly downplayed its importance, insisting titles had little meaning.
But longtime observers and analysts say Mr. Hun’s latest threat, the first of its kind, should be taken seriously.
Cham Bunthet, a political analyst and adviser, said this was the first time Mr. Hun Sen had threatened to pass a law openly designed to bring down an entire political party.
After the CPP’s loss to Funcinpec in 1993, Mr. Hun Sen bullied his way into a power-sharing deal by threatening to secede with the eastern provinces. In 2006, firmly back on top, the CPP pushed through legislation outlawing adultery, a move widely seen as targeting Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who was soon booted from the party amid a bitter power struggle. Though Funcinpec would survive both blows, the CPP’s only realistic challenger at the time was irreparably crippled.
“Then, he did it indirectly,” Mr. Bunthet said of the prime minister. “This time, he punches more directly.”
He said the head-on attack showed that Mr. Hun Sen was genuinely afraid of the CNRP, which surprised many by nearly capturing the National Assembly in the 2013 national elections.
He said Mr. Hun Sen would have to weigh the very real possibility that outlawing his main opponent this time around would only galvanize and energize the forces he was seeking to suppress, engender an election boycott, and rob the vote of any semblance of legitimacy.
“That’s why I think Hun Sen would think about this very carefully,” he said. “That would give him a lot of room to think if that would be the right position.”
Meas Nee said he and a group of fellow political analysts who came together after the 2013 elections to peer into the near future saw a move to dissolve the CNRP by engineering and using its leaders’ criminal records as one of “four storms” likely to hit the party.
In that case, he said a return of the mass opposition rallies like those that followed the disputed 2013 results could be just what the government wants, handing it an excuse to order a heavy-handed police response.
“In this case, violence will be unavoidable and therefore the blame could be placed in the hands of [the] CNRP,” he said, with martial law soon to follow.
“This latest phenomenon could happen shortly before the election, could be 2017 or 2018, and in this case the government could declare for no election until [a] later date,” he said. A postponed vote, he added, could even pave the way in a few years’ time for the succession of the prime minister’s eldest son, whom many analysts believe is being groomed to lead.
Lee Morgenbesser, a research fellow at Australia’s Griffith University who specializes in electoral politics in Southeast Asia, agreed that Mr. Hun Sen’s threat to amend to the Law on Political Parties marked an unprecedented direct attack on a major opposition party.
But he said the prime minister was taking aim from a position of strength, not fear.
“What does he have to fear?” said Mr. Morgenbesser, author of “Behind the Facade: Elections Under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia.”
“The CNRP has made almost no gains in the last few years and has never been weaker. More worrisome, the CPP does not lose commune elections and, if threatened, still has an opportunity to manipulate the outcome of them. The threat against the CNRP is the sign of strength.”
Mr. Morgenbesser said the threatened amendment was no bluff, but rather the next step in two years of mounting repression.
“In terms of the future, the result will be either a national election devoid of all competition or an election against a severely disempowered, or perhaps leaderless, CNRP. There is not much room for alternative scenarios anymore,” he said.
Some observers expect Mr. Hun Sen to avoid risking outright pariah status with the West. But Mr. Morgenbesser said the opposition should not expect some of its traditional allies abroad to put the same amount pressure on the CPP this time around—or for Mr. Hun Sen to care as much as he once did.
“It’s game over,” he said. “With China firmly backing the CPP and the United States under [U.S. President Donald] Trump advocating an illiberal foreign policy, supporters of democracy in Cambodia should not expect any tangible overseas assistance.”
(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)