In an effort to stave off further government claims of illegitimate leadership, the opposition CNRP yesterday held its second extraordinary congress of the year, voting to change bylaws that the Ministry of Interior had cited in refusing to recognise its deputy presidents.
Just six weeks ahead of the Kingdom’s commune elections, hundreds of Cambodia National Rescue Party supporters converged to pass a new amendment to their bylaws allowing the party’s central committee to approve one or more deputies at any point after the resignation of a party president.
The clause at the centre of what has been a weeks-long fracas – part of Article 47 of the party’s internal rules – had previously put a time limit of 30 days on the appointment of new deputies.
In what analysts have suggested is an effort to entangle the opposition in red tape, the Ministry of Interior at first refused to recognise the elevation of Kem Sokha to the party’s presidency – as well as the appointments of lawmakers Pol Ham, Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang as deputies – after the resignation of long-standing opposition leader Sam Rainsy in February.
The ministry claimed the selections were illegitimate because they breached the CNRP’s own bylaws, though the relevant bylaws had been amended at the same extraordinary congress that elected the new leaders. The ministry later accepted Sokha’s role as president – but only after the CNRP withdrew a slogan that had displeased the ruling CPP by urging voters to “replace the commune chiefs who serve party”.
On the same day the offending slogan was dropped, April 2, the CNRP reaffirmed its support of the new leadership in a letter to the Interior Ministry. However, in a seeming shifting of the goalposts, the government then claimed that the deputies’ official selection date was April 2, and therefore too late, as it fell out of the party’s stipulated 30-day window for replacing leadership.
Yesterday the CNRP sought to curtail the red-tape kerfuffle by removing that time limit from its bylaws, and will send the document to the Interior Ministry today for approval.
If that satisfies the Interior Ministry, the CNRP central committee will officially approve Ham, Sochua and Chhay Eang as deputies ahead of commune elections on June 4, Sochua explained yesterday.
“As far as we are concerned, we have already three vice presidents,” she said.
She said the bureaucratic dilemma “could have been avoided”, but that she now hoped the party could move on. “I am certain it will be over,” she said.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said he could not comment on whether the change would resolve the matter. “However we appreciate that the CNRP can revise their mistake,” Sopheak said.
“They themselves recognise that they committed the mistake otherwise, if they were right, they would lodge a complaint to the high court.”
But in spite of the numerous hurdles the opposition had been made to clear over the last several weeks, Sopheak yesterday stressed that the Interior Ministry could “not interfere in internal party affairs”.
“They have a right to design their own house but that design [must be] reported to the Ministry of Interior and comply with our constitution,” he said.
Putting the ball back in the government’s court by re-amending the bylaws was seen as a “smart move” by political analyst Ou Virak. Virak yesterday said he allowed for the possibility that the scrutiny of party bylaws was evidence of the system working as it should, while also conceding that the matter was “not the most important issue”.
“The CNRP definitely wants to focus on the election, but will they be able to do that? It’s not always in their hands,” he said, citing a climate of intimidation, anger and fear.
Khim Satha, the chief of Phnom Penh’s Boeung Prolit commune, who attended yesterday’s congress, said that he hoped the new rule would satisfy the Interior Ministry. “Before we were not wrong – I think the Ministry of Interior made a mistake for the party,” he said.
Fellow attendee Sar Chandy, from the capital’s Sen Sok district, said yesterday’s meeting was “meaningful”. “I just demand justice from the Ministry of Interior for the CNRP to join elections,” she said.
To cheers from the crowd at the CNRP headquarters yesterday, Sokha also took the opportunity to rally supporters and stress his party stood for non-violence, despite repeated ruling party claims –including from Prime Minister Hun Sen – that an opposition victory could lead to instability and even war.
“I would like to claim that if [CNRP] wins there is no war [We] win, and all Khmer are winners. There is full peace,” he said.