Prime Minister Hun Sen announced yesterday that he and opposition leader Sam Rainsy had “agreed in principle” that the next election could be held five months early, in February 2018, but that Cambodia National Rescue Party deputy leader Kem Sokha was holding up a deal.
Rainsy, whose party called a press conference in response, denied that he had agreed to a February election date and rejected speculation that any rift had emerged between him and Sokha, who is currently in the United States.
He added that without Sokha’s presence in Cambodia – he said the deputy leader could be out of the country for 10 more days – no agreement could be signed, dampening hopes that Rainsy and Hun Sen could ink a deal at the Royal Palace today.
“I would like to share some facts of the conversation [with Sam Rainsy]… We have agreed in principle to hold the next general election in February 2018, but Rainsy said he needed to consult with his deputy Kem Sokha,” the premier said yesterday at a ceremony for graduating students of the National Institute for Education, referring to a 45-minute phone conversation the pair had on Wednesday.
“I told him to write this down: The commune election will be held in February 2017 and then the national election will be held in February 2018. This is in the draft [agreement], so [we] agreed together on this word already.”
He was later informed by Interior Minister and Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng that Sokha disagreed with the proposal, Hun Sen said.
“When the president agrees and the deputy president disagrees, I don’t understand.… Letting excellency Kem Sokha veto does not seem very good, [so] excellency Sam Rainsy should persuade excellency Kem Sokha [to agree].
“I told [Rainsy] that [he] is the president. So [he] should tell Kem Sokha not to be so obstinate.… If there is no agreement signed, it is not the fault of Hun Sen or the CPP or Sam Rainsy or his working group. It is the fault of Kem Sokha.”
Hun Sen also threatened to release a recording of his conversation with Rainsy if the opposition denied his claims.
“I have also reminded him please don’t make any statement which is different to what we have talked about.… If a wrong statement is issued, it will force me to leak a recording [of our conversation].”
The premier then proceeded to play a brief segment of an audio recording, ostensibly of his phone conversation with Rainsy, in which the CNRP leader could be heard greeting Hun Sen for Khmer New Year.
Rainsy told reporters yesterday that his party had rejected a February 2018 election date in talks with Hun Sen because it was not early enough, adding that any deal made with the CPP would have to be agreed to and signed by both CNRP leaders.
“Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy are one person. So [the CNRP] cannot let Sam Rainsy do anything without Kem Sokha and cannot let Kem Sokha do anything without Sam Rainsy,” he said, brushing aside speculation that a rift had emerged between the two leaders over the election date.
“There is no way to split us in any way.”
He added that his party would continue to push for an election at least a year earlier than currently scheduled.
“They moved closer, earlier, by five months to February 2018, and we replied to them that this is not enough; we want the election to be earlier, at least one year earlier, because originally we asked for mid-term. Mid-term would be early 2016,” he said.
“February 2018 is still in 2018. So citizens do not agree, and I also cannot accept this.
“We have to make a compromise, if each party makes one step towards the other, we can find common ground, and I am still hopeful that in the very near future, in the coming days or weeks, we will reach that common ground.”
On Wednesday, speaking via phone, Kem Sokha said he wanted an election in February 2016. But he added that both parties needed to be “flexible”.
On that same day, Rainsy announced that he and Hun Sen had reached an agreement regarding a complete overhaul of the National Election Committee and the process by which its members are appointed.
The CNRP and election watchdogs have long argued that NEC reform is needed for a future vote to be “free and fair”.
Both parties have remained tight-lipped as to any other aspects of what they have agreed on, aside from a possible television licence for the CNRP.
Rainsy said yesterday that concessions such as the leadership of the National Assembly were “mentioned in the draft agreement”, and did not deny that he personally could replace Heng Samrin as assembly president.
“I cannot confirm that, but I can tell you that this is not the point, this is not the stumbling block. The stumbling block now is the date of the election.”
Veteran political pundit Lao Mong Hay yesterday said that Hun Sen was trying to play “the divide and rule strategy” in implying that Sokha was holding back an agreement.
“If I were Sam Rainsy, I would tell Prime Minister Hun Sen: ‘Don’t poke your nose into our internal affairs. Mind your own business.'”
He added that he did not think there was much validity to claims of internal discord, and, on the contrary to Hun Sen’s claims that Sokha was a hard-liner, “in the past, Kem Sokha used to be more subservient to the CPP”.
“These days, perhaps, the CPP is [even] more divided than the CNRP,” he said.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA