Upset by an opposition campaign slogan that appeared to gain traction with the public, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party pulled out the rule book, found some leverage and began to apply pressure.
Legal threats for “incitement” over the past month were followed by a flurry of ostensibly unprompted complaints from CPP commune chiefs aggrieved that a competing political party would go as far as to suggest voters should replace local representatives with ones who “serve the people”.
Then Interior Minister Sar Kheng weighed in, saying that not only should the rival Cambodia National Rescue Party’s slogan be changed, but its leadership was in fact illegitimate.
The CNRP’s old bylaws, Kheng claimed, had not been followed when they were elected at the party’s March 2 extraordinary congress and the Law on Political Parties may have been breached, officials later implied, hinting that the problem could be solved if only the slogan were changed.
Yesterday the ruling party got what they wanted, in writing, in what the CRNP said was the spirit of “reconciliation”. In two separate letters sent to Kheng, the opposition officially withdrew the slogan from the CNRP political platform and reaffirmed Kem Sokha as president and Mu Sochua, Eng Chhay Eang and Pol Ham as deputies, a decision which they believe will be this time honoured by the Interior Ministry.
Reached yesterday, Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the letters were “being considered”. He wouldn’t say whether authorities had accepted the CNRP’s leadership and updated bylaws, which removed an 18-month waiting period to elect a new leader included in the previous version.
Although the CPP has been accused of using harsher methods to drive political bargains, including trumped up charges and arrests, analysts yesterday saw the episode as another example of legal harassment by the CPP to weaken and exact concessions from their opponents as the June commune elections approached.
Markus Karbaum, a German political scientist specialising in Cambodia, said the tactic both “distracted” the opposition and sent “a clear message” that the CPP set the rules.
And given that the Interior Ministry’s ruling came on the heels of hastily approved changes to the Law on Political Parties that give it the power to suspend political parties and petition the Supreme Court to dissolve them completely for “serious” mistakes, the analyst said the consequences for the opposition of confrontation were now very “significant”.
“The party’s compliance is comprehensible,” he said.
The widely criticised amendments compelled exiled former CNRP leader Sam Rainsy to resign to avoid his many politically motivated convictions in Cambodia being used as grounds to abolish the opposition under the changes.
Social commentator Meas Ny yesterday likened the situation to a boxing match with the referee fighting for one side.
Speaking yesterday, opposition Senator Mardi Seng said the “catchy” slogan wasn’t worth further trouble as the “main event” approached.
“We just want to focus,” he said. “They want to get into a fight, but we just backed out and let it go. I think it’s the right thing to do.”