Interior Minister Sar Kheng suggested on Tuesday that the government may not recognize the opposition party in upcoming elections if its transfer of leadership to Kem Sokha is found to have violated the CNRP’s own internal rules.
Mr. Sokha, meanwhile, told supporters the party would not be outfoxed by an adversary it knew well.
Speaking at the groundbreaking of a new road in Kompong Speu province, Mr. Kheng said he was reviewing documents the CNRP had submitted seeking government validation for its party congress earlier this month, during which Mr. Sokha was appointed party president in the wake of Sam Rainsy’s resignation.
“Please be careful, because as far as I know, according to [the CNRP’s] old statute, when the president is absent for less than 18 months, the seat will be left vacant,” Mr. Kheng said. Instead of waiting that long after Mr. Rainsy’s resignation, the CNRP installed Mr. Sokha as party chief, he said.
“Maybe they did not abide by their statute,” he said. “That’s my guess. It is not clear, but when I read all documents, I will know clearly. This is what I heard.”
Mr. Kheng said that if the CNRP was found to have violated its own rules, it will be “hard to recognize” the party, as others may follow its lead and also ignore their internal rules.
Commune elections are set for June 4, about a year before the national election, and will be the strongest indication since 2013 of the country’s political mood.
Mr. Rainsy’s raft of court cases and position as party president made the CNRP vulnerable under the newly passed amendments to the Law on Political Parties, which allows courts to dissolve parties whose leaders have been convicted of crimes or a slew of other vaguely worded infractions.
The CNRP amended its bylaws when it approved Mr. Sokha’s presidency to meet the demands of the amendments, which requires a party that loses its president to replace the position within 90 days. It also rushed to name a permanent president out of concern that commune council candidates would not be accepted by the government if they were only endorsed by Mr. Sokha in his capacity as acting president.
Mr. Kheng conceded that the CNRP may actually have followed the amendments and acted in accordance with its internal rules. “What I say—it does not mean that [the CNRP] is wrong. I do not say that it is right either,” he added.
At the opposition headquarters in Phnom Penh, Mr. Sokha told roughly 100 CNRP commune candidates on Tuesday that the party knew its political foe too well to fall into its legal tangles.
“We know our competitors clearly, since it’s been almost 30 or 40 years,” he said of the CPP. “If we do not know our competitors clearly, we might fall into their traps and our party might be dissolved.”
“In this political context, I suggest, brothers and sisters, don’t say much about them,” he said. “Please think about our issues instead. As for [the CPP’s] issues, not only do people in the country know about them, but the whole world already knows who is doing what.”
Mr. Sokha took a similar tack with discussion around January 7, the date in 1979 that Vietnamese forces overthrew the Khmer Rouge regime with the help of Cambodian rebels, including Prime Minister Hun Sen. Opposition figures, including Mr. Sokha and Mr. Rainsy, have long used the date as a rallying cry against the decade of Vietnamese military occupation that followed, as well as against Mr. Hun Sen, who was originally empowered by Hanoi.
Mr. Sokha urged party members to avoid discussing what he characterized as a widely known truth about the date. “Do not twist the facts. Do not boast or defend what already happened in the past,” he said.
Mr. Sokha also said the party’s commune election slogan, which promises to “change commune chiefs who serve the party and replace them with commune chiefs who serve the people,” applied as much to the CNRP as to the CPP.
“The candidates who are elected as commune chiefs, but do not implement party policy, which serves the nation’s and the people’s interest, we will let the people evaluate you,” he said.
Several current opposition commune chiefs have been surprised to see their names replaced by others at the top of the ballot for the June 4 vote, prompting Mr. Kheng to accuse the party of hypocrisy.
When there’s a “commune chief or deputy commune chief that its party believes betrayed it or was disloyal to it, it fires a bunch of them,” he said of the CNRP. “Why is that?”
Opposition party spokesman Yim Sovann acknowledged some churn in the party’s rosters, particularly among a batch he had overseen in Phnom Penh, but said the “headache” of fielding new candidates was needed to “serve the national interest.”