The future of the Cambodia National Rescue Party – and its participation in the upcoming commune elections – was left uncertain yesterday after the Ministry of Interior ruled that a party congress held this month to elevate Kem Sokha to the post of president was against an older set of the party’s internal bylaws.
A week after Interior Minister Sar Kheng questioned Sokha’s selection, a ministry statement yesterday ruled that the CNRP had violated its bylaws by electing a new party president a few weeks after former president Sam Rainsy resigned in February, instead of abiding by its own mandated 18 month waiting period a bylaw that was amended during the same congress that elevated Sokha.
It also asked the party to change its unofficial election slogan – “replace commune chiefs who serve the party with commune chiefs who serve the people” – claiming the phrase wasn’t in compliance with the Constitution, election laws, and the spirit of a democracy and multiparty systems, albeit without offering any reasoning.
On March 2, the CNRP held an extraordinary congress in Phnom Penh to select Sokha and three new deputies – Pol Ham, Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang – following recent controversial amendments to the Law on Political Parties that allow for the dissolution of parties whose leaders have criminal convictions.
At the same time, the CNRP also amended Article 47 of its bylaws to state that the senior-most deputy president can become president immediately in case of a vacancy. The previous version of the bylaws, from 2013, had called for an 18-month window between the resignation of a party president and the selection of a new one.
In stating that the party had violated its own rules, yesterday’s letter from the Ministry of Interior relied upon the 2013 bylaws, which were first submitted when the CNRP was formed by a merger of the Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party. Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said yesterday the amended bylaws were not taken into consideration.
“Normally, what is deposited and recognised in the Interior Ministry is the statute that is in effect,” Sopheak said, despite the CNRP confirming last week that the amendments had been sent to the ministry.
Internal bylaws aside, however, the CPP government’s own recent amendments to the Kingdom’s Law on Political Parties requires that a party elect a new president within 90 days of a vacancy, and the Law on Elections of Commune/Sangkat Council requires the “political party leader” or an assigned representative to sign off on the party’s candidate list.
With Kem Sokha listed as the CNRP’s leader on the lists recently submitted to the National Election Committee, the ministry’s letter sowed confusion as to whether the opposition’s registration for the upcoming polls was even valid. But Sopheak refused to say what the letter meant for the party, only repeating that they acted in contravention of their bylaws.
Sam Kuntheamy, head of election watchdog NICFEC, said the Law on Political Parties should supersede the party’s bylaws in this case or, alternately, that the CNRP’s amended bylaws should be considered sufficient to justify the leadership selection.
Yim Sovann, spokesman for the CNRP, said the party had responded to the letter by requesting a meeting with Sar Kheng to discuss the issue. “The party sent a letter to the Interior Ministry [yesterday] asking for five CNRP representatives to meet with Samdech Kralahom [Sar Kheng],” he said, while declining to comment further.
However, Sopheak said a decision had been made and any CNRP effort to challenge it would be “useless”.
Ou Virak, head of think tank Future Forum, said the ministry’s directive would put the CNRP in a bind because their commune election candidates had already been signed off on by party president Sokha, with no way out of the predicament readily available.
He added, however, that the move seemed aimed at tangling the party in red tape rather than dismantling the country’s only viable opposition. “I think this is more bureaucratic harassment than any intention to dissolve the party,” he said.