February 9, 2017 2:40 pm JST

Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party may split

Ruling party suspected of fueling rivalries to gain an electoral edge

ATSUSHI TOMIYAMA, Nikkei staff writer

Kem Sokha, vice president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, greets supporters at the opposition party's headquarters in Phnom Penh in October 2016. © Reuters

HANOI -- The Cambodia National Rescue Party is in danger of fracturing, as Prime Minister Hun Sen maneuvers to weaken the main opposition party ahead of a general election in 2018.

CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha received a royal pardon on Dec. 2 last year, voiding a five-month jail sentence. The opposition leader has since made a series of remarks favorable to Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodia People's Party.

Immediately after the pardon, Kem Sokha said in a statement, "To be honest, the prime minister and I have the same vision and values for the future of our nation, for national unity in the future."

Kem Sokha was sentenced to prison for ignoring court orders to appear as a witness in connection with an alleged love affair he had with a hairdresser. The CPP had pursued strong legal action against Kem Sokha and was poised to have the acting leader of the CNRP arrested. He had been holed up his party's headquarters in Phnom Penh for nearly six months, starting in May of last year, to avoid the police.

The sudden pardon by King Norodom Sihamoni has aroused suspicions about the relationship between the ruling party and Kem Sokha. One man who supports the CNRP claimed the opposition leader "probably concluded a secret agreement with Hun Sen."

Pro-government news media that had been digging into Kem Sokha's alleged sex scandal now praise him as an important leader of the opposition.

Change of heart

His nominal boss, CNRP President Sam Rainsy, is exiled in Paris. He faces imprisonment following his conviction on charges of defaming then-Foreign Minister Hor Namhong in 2008. Sam Rainsy also refused to appear in court, and would probably be arrested if he returned home. Hun Sen remains an implacable foe, filing a new defamation suit against Sam Rainsy on Jan. 18.

Although it is unclear whether Kem Sokha's pardon was arranged by the CPP, his treatment stands in sharp contrast to that received by Sam Rainsy. The two opposition leaders have parted ways, both physically and politically.

Many analysts believe Hun Sen is trying to split the CNRP before the 2018 general election. The CNRP was founded in 2012 through the merger of the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party led by Kem Sokha. The party is plagued by factionalism. With one of its leaders facing arrest and the other possibly beholden to the CPP for getting him off the hook, the chances of a breakup look good.

The CNRP benefited from a surge in public support during the 2013 election, but the forces arrayed against it are growing stronger. Among them are small parties were once opposed to the government but now appear more critical of the CNRP. These include the League of Democratic Party, the Beehive Social Democratic Party, the Khmer Power Party and the Khmer Solidarity Party. These groups fault the leaders of the CNRP as irresponsible. The Beehive Social Democratic Party had been a forceful critic of the government through its radio station until recently, but is now shifting its attacks to the CNRP.

Criticism of the CNRP is also growing on social media. Thy Sovanta, a 22-year-old political activist with 2 million followers on Facebook was once a strong CNRP suppoorter. She attacked the CPP through the first half of 2016, but last September she wrote that the CNRP would fade away, earning her 63,000 "likes."

Conversations purportedly between Thy Sovanta and Hun Sen on the Line chat app have appeared online. She was allegedly promised $1 million in return for criticizing the CNRP.

Local elections will begin in June ahead of the 2018 general election. Even if the CNRP splits, the opposition will still have the support of many people unhappy with the CPP, said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, a group calling for democratization. But if the CPP suffers a big setback in the local elections, it will have a response, Koul Panha said.

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