Interior Minister Sar Kheng yesterday, after becoming the latest ruling party official to weigh in on the CNRP’s embattled campaign slogan, went on to question the validity of the recent extraordinary congress that elevated Kem Sokha to party president.
At the inauguration of a new road in Kampong Speu, Kheng said he was unsure of the legality of the March 2 Cambodia National Rescue Party congress that moved Sokha to president and selected three new vice presidents – Pol Ham, Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang.
The extraordinary congress was necessitated by the surprise resignation of former CNRP president Sam Rainsy in early February, ahead of ruling party amendments made to the Law on Political Parties to facilitate dissolution of parties whose leaders hold criminal convictions.
Under the revamped law, a president departing under the cloud of a criminal record must be replaced within a 90-day window.
But Kheng, referring to what appeared to be an outdated version of CNRP bylaws, said the ministry would check if the congress was valid, as the party’s statutes stipulated that a new president could be selected only 18 months after the presidency was vacated.
“Their congress was held after about two months. This duration is not over 18 months, so why did they select the president?” he asked.
“In this case they did not respect the statute. If so, it is difficult to recognise the CNRP.”
Article 47 of an earlier version of the CNRP’s bylaws demands an 18-month window between the resignation of a party president and the selection of a new one, allowing only for the assumption of an “acting president” title by the deputy during the interim. However, the CNRP amended this article at the same March 2 congress to state that the senior-most deputy president can become president immediately in case of a vacancy.
The current deputy presidents are ranked in order of age – Ham, then Sochua, then Chhay Eang.
Chhay Eang yesterday defended the party’s decision to hold the extraordinary congress, saying there were no restrictions on such a meeting, which was necessary given the political situation. “If there were no amendments to the Law on Political Parties, then it would not have been necessary to hold an extraordinary congress.”
He again reaffirmed that amendments to the party bylaws, which he said had been submitted to the Interior Ministry, allowed the deputy president to take over as president with-out the previously called-for 18-month waiting period.
However, Kheng yesterday said the ministry would examine the bylaws submitted by the CNRP, then send a response in writing to the party. Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak could not be reached to confirm if the bylaws had been received.
Sam Kuntheamy, head of election monitor Nicfec, said political parties were required to submit any amendments to their bylaws for approval by the Interior Ministry, but that the ministry should just approve them as a matter of course in this case.
If the bylaws were rejected, he argued, it would create a situation where the CNRP would suddenly not be recognised despite already being registered with the National Election Committee for the upcoming ballot.
“I think the Ministry of Interior should acknowledge the political situation. They can accept or reject the amendments, but if they don’t [accept them], the CNRP cannot [take part in] the elections,” he said.
Kheng yesterday also waded into the controversy surrounding the CNRP’s new slogan. The seemingly innocuous call to “replace commune chiefs who serve the party with commune chiefs who serve the people” was decried as incitement by Hun Sen during a March 8 speech, which was followed by a CPP statement threatening legal action if it weren’t changed.
In the intervening week, about 200 CPP commune chiefs have condemned the slogan in what the ruling party has claimed is a grassroots show of force, though the letters of protest being circulated are strikingly similar.
Kheng yesterday suggested the CNRP use words that wouldn’t divide “Khmers and Khmers”, adding that the ministry was still considering whether it should take legal action against the party.
The CNRP’s Chhay Eang yesterday questioned politicians’ fixation on the slogan, saying if the message were untrue, it would simply fizzle out.
“If it does not reflect the truth in society, it will disappear by itself,” Chhay Eang said.