Jailed CNRP President Kem Sokha last week signed off on a candidate list for the upcoming Senate elections, instigating an immediate response from former opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who said the move should be disregarded given that Sokha is under duress behind bars and not complying with party procedures.
The development coincides with a directive from Prime Minister Hun Sen on Friday delaying the upper house elections from January 14 until February, with Senate spokesman Mam Bun Neang saying additional time was needed to implement four recently promulgated sets of electoral law amendments that would redistribute the CNRP’s elected National Assembly seats in the event of the party’s dissolution.
Sokha is currently being held in pretrial detention in a Tbong Khmum prison on widely condemned “treason” charges, and the party has said it will only participate in “free and fair elections” in July. But while more than half the CNRP’s lawmakers are outside the country fearing harassment or arrest, Sokha’s move to take the party into the Senate elections has taken sections of his party by surprise.
On Thursday, the jailed president signed off on a list of 116 candidates, including reserves, for the 62-member upper house. The chamber previously had 57 seats, with the CPP having 46 senators to the Sam Rainsy Party’s (SRP’s) 11. The King and the National Assembly nominate two members each.
On Friday, however, following the nominations, Rainsy released a video on Facebook that features him seated alongside CNRP lawmakers Mu Sochua, Nhay Chamroeun and Tioulong Saumura, who is also his wife, saying Sokha was not in a position to make such a decision because he was currently under threat of being convicted.
“Now, Kem Sokha is under threat. His decisions and statements we believe are not his real decisions,” Rainsy says in the video.
He also released a letter last Tuesday reminding Sokha that they had taken decisions together as leaders of the party under a “consensus” model, and requested that in his absence CNRP leaders Mu Sochua, Eng Chhay Eang and Yim Sovann – all former SRP members – be consulted on party decisions, including Senate candidate nominations.
“And now the consensus has to come again between His Excellency [Sokha] and the three CNRP leaders who understand my mind clearly,” the letter reads.
Rainsy’s appearance with CNRP lawmakers in a video and his release of the letter to Sokha could be in violation of the amendments passed to the Law on Political Parties, which outlaws any association with criminals, including the self-exiled opposition leader who faces multiple convictions in the Kingdom.
The former leader was forced to resign in February before the passage of other amendments to the Political Parties Law that disallowed convicted individuals from holding party leadership positions.
But Rainsy said he was confident that his appearance alongside current party members would not result in the party’s dissolution, adding that such a move would not occur in light of the CPP’s internal apprehensions and mounting international pressure.
“All CPP leaders do not agree with Hun Sen but they are afraid to speak out. There is an unprecedented pressure from the international community speaking with one voice,” Rainsy said in an email on Friday.
International governments have widely condemned the arrest of Sokha and potential dissolution of the opposition, with a Swedish diplomat saying last week that the country’s government would reconsider its engagement with Cambodia if the opposition party is dissolved.
CNRP lawmakers Pol Ham and Mao Monyvann, who are the most senior remaining CNRP lawmakers in the country, did not respond to requests for comments yesterday, but told local media that the party president had the right to approve the final list.
Kem Monovithya, the party’s deputy director of advocacy and a daughter of Sokha, said her father’s decision to sign the list was in line with long-held plans. “The CNRP position has always been to put forward the list as CNRP is not dissolved yet,” she wrote in a message.
CNRP chief whip Son Chhay also said that the signing of the list was not a major problem, in part because changes could be made even after submission to the National Election Committee – whose spokesman, Hang Puthea, yesterday said that only the CPP and Cambodian Youth Party had submitted their lists thus far.
“We have procedures to compromise. So far, there seems to be no big conflict,” he said. “For the suggestion that there is a break-up [within the CNRP],
it seems not true.”The move has not gone down well with certain nominees, however. Ten CNRP candidates from Region 8 of the Senate seat distribution, which represents six provinces, and 17 CNRP candidates from the four provinces constituting Region 4 asked to withdraw their names from the list.
Sor Chandeth, a candidate from Region 4, said he was suspicious of Sokha’s decision to sign the list because it was potentially done under pressure and in a secretive manner. He added that it required further deliberations.
“There should be an evaluation at each province. Then when it reaches the national level, it is evaluated again. But they did not go through that, [so] it did not follow the procedures,” he said.
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan distanced the ruling party from the development, saying there was no behind-the-scenes political deal that required Sokha’s approval of the candidate list.
“Do not talk about negotiations because His Excellency Kem Sokha’s case and CNRP’s is still in the court’s hand. Therefore we cannot talk about negotiations,” he said.
While he considered Rainsy’s inclusion of Sochua, Chhay Eang and Sovann in his letter to Sokha as collusion with a criminal, he said that as the opposition party was on its final breath, it did not require any further targeting.