Sam Rainsy, the longtime leader of Cambodia’s beleaguered democracy movement, resigned as president of the opposition CNRP on Saturday in the face of the government’s threats to dissolve the entire party over his criminal record.
Analysts and observers say the resignation might not take a heavy toll on the CNRP’s support at the polls—if the party makes it that far. They warned that the same squeeze the government put on Mr. Rainsy could easily befall whoever takes his place. At the moment, that looks likely to be CNRP acting President Kem Sokha, who faces his own legal troubles.
Mr. Rainsy, who has stayed abroad since a years-old defamation conviction against him was reanimated in 2015, announced his resignation with a letter posted to his Facebook page, effective immediately.
The brief letter said only that he was resigning for “personal reasons” and for “the sake of the party.”
It came in the wake of an unprecedented threat from his perennial rival, Prime Minister Hun Sen, to amend the country’s Law on Political Parties to dissolve parties led by criminal convicts. The prime minister left no doubt that he was targeting the CNRP. With its simple majority in the National Assembly, the CPP would have no trouble making good on the threat and has pledged to do so as quickly as possible.
In a brief video posted online by Mr. Rainsy on Sunday, he makes clear that the threat to dissolve the party drove his decision.
“They are attempting to dissolve our party, and if our party is dissolved, we cannot join the election and the election will have no meaning, and we will lose an historic opportunity to bring change to the Khmer people,” he said, addressing his colleagues in Phnom Penh via Skype.
“We have to dare to sacrifice everything to reach our goal,” he said. “What do we want? We want the elections, because we want change through elections.”
After a meeting of the CNRP’s steering committee at its Phnom Penh headquarters on Sunday, the party said Mr. Sokha, who returned from a trip to the countryside to attend, would remain acting president until a new president is officially selected at the next party convention, as per the party’s bylaws. Party spokesman Yim Sovann said the convention was scheduled for April 7 next year in time for the national election in July.
Fresh News, a popular website that often functions as a CPP mouthpiece, published a letter purportedly from Mr. Rainsy asking for his wife—and longtime opposition lawmaker—Tioulong Saumura to be appointed as his replacement. But the CNRP said the letter was fake.
Ou Virak, head of the Future Forum think tank, said much of the opposition’s support was tied directly to Mr. Rainsy. But he said that support would likely stay with the CNRP unless Mr. Rainsy actually turned against the party, which was unlikely.
“Sam Rainsy does have a lot of die-hard fans,” he said. “As the first real opposition figure of the country since UNTAC [the U.N. mission that restored democratic elections to Cambodia in 1993] period, I think he has been and will continue to occupy that sweet spot as the only main rival to Hun Sen.”
“It is the obsession with beating Hun Sen politically that has been his trait and much of his core supporters,” Mr. Virak added. “I think he still has a lot of sway. I think this resignation will have little impact on the election outcome as he would still be a key CNRP figure despite no longer officially a part of it.”
Many have seen the proposed amendment to the party law as Mr. Hun Sen’s latest bid to test the unity of the CNRP, the product of a fraught merger between Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha’s separate opposition parties in 2012.
Mr. Virak said the party would likely hold together after Mr. Rainsy’s resignation, with Mr. Sokha taking over as president and a Rainsy loyalist eventually replacing him as deputy. And while Mr. Rainsy may not have truly led the CNRP for some time, he added, the party would still seek his approval for any major decisions.
Even so, Mr. Virak said the resignation was still a partial victory for Mr. Hun Sen, as the CNRP would struggle to explain the changes to its supporters in a way that did not deter some from going to the polls.
“The problem is explaining to the supporters and install the energy needed that would create the momentum they need,” he said. “They need these personalities to inject enthusiasm for young people and migrant workers to go to vote. A lower voting turnout will benefit the CPP as they have the organization to ensure their supporters will vote.”
Lee Morgenbesser, a research fellow at Australia’s Griffith University who specializes in electoral politics in Southeast Asia, said it was too soon to say how the CNRP would fare at the polls with Mr. Rainsy removed from his official role. He pointed out that the opposition has never performed well in commune elections and that the real test would come with the National Assembly election, which the CPP nearly lost to the CNRP in 2013.
Mr. Morgenbesser said he believed the bulk of the opposition’s supporters are driven more by a broad desire for democracy than their faith in Mr. Rainsy, who has managed to capture and ride that spirit for some time. Now, he said, “the CNRP, and Kem Sokha in particular, will need to harness this message of democratisation in order to properly account for any potential loss of support for the opposition.”
He and Mr. Virak agreed that the resignation could be something of a blessing for the CNRP should Mr. Rainsy step back from day-to-day operations and allow for a more clearly defined hierarchy inside the party to take shape.
Cham Bunthet, a political analyst and adviser, was more pessimistic about the CNRP’s new prospects. He said many of Mr. Rainsy’s grassroots supporters do not back Mr. Sokha and that the CNRP would struggle to convince all of them to stay with the party in time for the elections.
“Even if there is enough time, they’re going to spend a lot of time defending [themselves from] CPP punches instead of educating voters,” he said, adding that the unity the party shows at its center quickly frays in the provinces, where jostling for commune council slots between its two halves remains intense.
What the analysts all agreed on was that Mr. Rainsy’s resignation may prove only a short-term reprieve for the CNRP.
“I imagine Rainsy’s resignation caught the CPP off guard, which means they now must adapt their repression strategy accordingly. This is bad news for Sokha,” Mr. Morgenbesser said.
In what looks to many like another politically motivated case, the Anti-Corruption Unit is investigating Mr. Sokha for corruption over leaked audio recordings in which he is allegedly heard promising to buy property for a mistress.
Mr. Sokha has neither confirmed nor denied that the man in the recordings is him, and was sentenced to five months in prison last year for failing to present himself as a witness in the woman’s prostitution case. Though Mr. Hun Sen eventually arranged a royal pardon for Mr. Sokha, the corruption investigation—while dormant—has not been closed.
What the prime minister has done with Mr. Rainsy, “he can do with everybody,” said Mr. Bunthet. “Kem Sokha is still under investigation; [Mr. Hun Sen] can bring it back easily, so running away does not solve the problem.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said the ruling party was pushing ahead with the amendment to the political party law regardless of Mr. Rainsy’s resignation and hoped to have it passed by the end of the month.
In an email on Sunday, Mr. Rainsy conceded that he could not guarantee the party’s survival just by stepping down.
“I certainly would not say that the CNRP has been saved simply by my resignation and leaving the party,” he said. “Certainly there is every danger that further legal pretexts will be used to attack it. There are still many political prisoners in Cambodia.”
Mr. Rainsy declined to comment on what, if any, influence he would retain over the party.
Though officially exiled from Cambodia, he has vowed to return ahead of next year’s elections. And despite the resignation, CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said the party still envisioned a future for Mr. Rainsy as the prime minister should they win.
“We will do what we have to do so that he returns to lead the country,” she said. “He’s not going away.”
(Additional reporting by Khuon Narim, Aun Pheap, Ouch Sony and Colin Meyn)