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Party over for opposition? Cambodia watchers wonder if CPP really will dissolve CNRP

Prime Minister Hun Sen (right) shakes hands with opposition leader Sam Rainsy during a meeting at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh in 2013. Tang Chhin Sothy
Prime Minister Hun Sen (right) shakes hands with opposition leader Sam Rainsy during a meeting at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh in 2013. Tang Chhin Sothy

Party over for opposition? Cambodia watchers wonder if CPP really will dissolve CNRP

Would the CPP dissolve its only political threat, or is it a bluff?

This was the question being asked yesterday as Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan announced April 1 as the date for a parliamentary vote on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s controversial proposal to change the 1997 Law on Political Parties.

The changes, the premier has said, would bar people with convictions from leading a political party and allow a party to be dissolved if a member commits a criminal offence.

As the Cambodia National Rescue Party has several members convicted in cases widely seen as political, including its exiled leader Sam Rainsy, it’s clear, observers say, that the premier has the opposition in his crosshairs.

But would he push the button and dissolve a party with 55 seats in the National Assembly?

Some observers yesterday leaned towards bluff. Speaking on condition of anonymity, one government adviser said disbanding the CNRP would amount to political suicide.

“I think that [the CPP] would not dare to do this,” he said in an interview. “If they do it, it’s like it kills itself, it does not profit, and only unites together the same Khmers [against it].”

Political analyst Ou Virak said he was inclined to agree, suggesting delaying the vote until April gave the CPP a “cool-down period” to try to use the threat of the move to pressure the opposition, perhaps exacting concessions at the negotiating table.

“I don’t think the laws will be far-reaching enough to dissolve the opposition, I think it’s more a bluff,” Virak said, noting a potential backlash from investors if CNRP supporters took to the streets.

“It’s a bit risky.”

But others weren’t so sure. Meas Ny, another political analyst, suggested the potential instability of disbanding a party that commanded almost half the popular vote could be used as justification for delaying an election and enacting martial law.

“If CNRP supporters come on the streets and confront CPP supporters, you could get a situation like Thailand, where the next step is martial law.”

A well-informed observer, who requested anonymity, said the threats to amend the law were simply the continuation of a “comprehensive strategy” to weaken the opposition.

This, he suggested, had flowed from Hun Sen’s frustration when a backroom deal that effectively freed CNRP acting president Kem Sokha from house arrest by quashing his conviction with a royal pardon failed to split his alliance with Rainsy. (The pair formerly led rival opposition parties.)

Though he didn’t think it likely that dissolving the party was the premier’s goal, the observer said such gamesmanship with only months to go before the commune ballot was alarming and ultimately unpredictable.

“The timeframe is my biggest concern,” he said.

“If Hun Sen wants to do something, then who can stop him?”

CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann was not reachable yesterday. But one lawmaker from the party, who wished to remain anonymous, urged the ruling party to reconsider the move.

The MP said dissolving the CNRP would completely undermine the legitimacy of the 2017 commune and 2018 national elections.

Most importantly, he said, it would destroy the core post-2013 election reform of a bipartisan NEC, as CNRP-appointed members would likely resign, leaving the body in violation of the 2014 constitutional amendment that underpinned the change in its composition.

“I bet there are ruling party lawyers and lawmakers that are worried about this,” he said.

But Eysan, the CPP spokesman, said there was no reason, if the law was enacted, not to enforce it, noting it applied to all parties.

“If we cannot [implement the law], how can we call ourselves the ruling party? … We use our power according to the procedure of the law.”

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