March 3, 2017 4:30 pm JST

Leadership reshuffle emboldens Cambodia's political opposition

New opposition leaders augur bold but 'quixotic' challenge to Hun Sen

DAVID HUTT, Contributing writer

Mu Sochua, a lawmaker of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, makes a speech during a ceremony to mark the 25th anniversary of the Paris Peace Agreements in front of the CNRP headquarters in October, 2016. © Getty Images

PHNOM PENH -- Whatever veneer of democracy Cambodia once had is fading quickly, warn regional critics. In recent weeks, the government of Prime Minister Hun Sen has imprisoned land-rights activists, sued a political commentator for defamation and made a concerted effort to fracture the country's main political opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), ahead of two pivotal votes: a commune -- or municipal -- election in June and a general election next year.

In February, the lower house of parliament, the National Assembly, approved amendments to the country's Law on Political Parties that will allow the government to dissolve political parties for arbitrary and vaguely worded reasons.

The changes forced Sam Rainsy, the longtime leader of the CNRP, to resign as president in February, a surprise move announced days before the legislation was passed by parliament.

With numerous defamation charges to his name, Rainsy's leadership could have infringed an amendment barring individuals with convictions from serving as political party leaders. Under the reformed law, the Supreme Court can dissolve parties led by such individuals.

Following Rainsy's resignation, the party's Vice President Kem Sokha took over as CNRP's acting president. The party was formed in 2012 as a merger between Rainsy's Sam Rainsy Party and Sokha's Human Rights Party.

As the frontman of the Cambodian opposition movement since the 1990s, Rainsy's resignation has raised serious questions about the future of the CNRP and the increasingly belligerent tactics of the Hun Sen government.

Moreover, despite Rainsy's resignation, it is still not clear whether the government will use the altered law to dissolve the CNRP ahead of June's local election, which will decide the chiefs and councilors of Cambodia's 1,633 communes for the next five years.

The government's recent crackdown on the political opposition is "unprecedented," said Sophal Ear, an associate professor at Occidental College in Los Angeles. "Democracy in Cambodia is on life support," he added.

Fear of losing

At the last general election in 2013, the CNRP narrowly lost to Hun Sen's ruling Cambodian People's Party by just under 290,000 votes of a total 6.63 million cast. In terms of National Assembly seats, the Cambodian People's Party won just 68, down from 90, while the CNRP secured the remaining 55.

In recent months, critics have suggested that the government's intimidation of the CNRP has been driven by fear of losing the upcoming elections.

"It's a difficult task for the ruling party to compete [in upcoming elections] if the CNRP is united," said Noan Sereiboth, a member of Politikoffee, a local political discussion group.

Sources close to the Cambodian People's Party told media in February that the party's own voter surveys showed a possible 30% swing away from the ruling party in the June local election.

Such a shift would be a grave threat to the ruling party, which secured 1,592 of the 1,633 commune chief seats available in the last commune election in 2012. In terms of the popular vote, it won 61.7%, compared with the Sam Rainsy Party's 20.6% and the Human Rights Party's 9.6%.

If the CNRP remains an active political party by June's commune election and can retain the same number of voters who backed the Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party five years ago, a 30% swing from the Cambodian People's Party to the CNRP could hand the opposition party the popular vote.

Under that scenario, the CNRP would be on solid ground heading into next year's general election -- which in turn could spell the end to Hun Sen's three-decade reign as prime minister.

Changing leadership

But the CNRP faces tough challenges. Following Rainsy's recent resignation, the party initially said its new leadership structure would be decided at its next party congress, planned for 2018. However, another amendment to the political parties law requires parties that lose their president to name a replacement within 90 days.

On Tuesday the CNRP announced that Sokha would formally assume the position of president and that three new vice-presidential posts would be created.

The only three candidates put forward for the vice-presidential roles -- lawmakers Pol Ham, Mu Sochua and Eng Chhay Eang -- were approved by the CNRP's steering committee on Wednesday and accepted at the party congress on Thursday.

"We know very well that the road to victory and nonviolent democratic change that lies ahead of us will be filled with obstacles. I therefore urge my fellow CNRP members to remain confident, be aware of our identity and remember our purposes," Sokha said in his closing speech to the party congress. "CNRP is not the party of the past; CNRP is the party of the future."

Before the CNRP's meeting, analysts said the party would need to balance the leadership between its two factions, which are divided between supporters of Rainsy and Sokha, in order to maintain cohesion. "There's a bit of something for everyone," said Sophal of Occidental College, commenting on the reshuffle. Indeed, the four party leaders are split evenly between the two factions. Ham was a co-founder of the Human Rights Party with Sokha, while Chhay Eang and Sochua have been longtime allies of Rainsy.

Local political analysts told the Nikkei Asian Review that with this new leadership structure in place, the CNRP would be in a much better position to contest the two crucial elections -- not least because the four leaders are likely to gain public support, said Sereiboth of Politikoffee.

The four each have a decade or more experience in politics, including of campaigning in rural areas, where the ruling Cambodian People's Party has been dominant for decades. The opposition party's urban voter base is relatively secure, but several analysts noted that electoral success would likely come down to the rural vote.

The selection of Sochua, the most prominent woman in the opposition party and a former head of the Ministry of Women's and Veterans' Affairs, is likely to be warmly received by Cambodia's female voters.

"The women of Cambodia deserve a new dawn," she told the Nikkei Asian Review. "They [CNRP members] are all very optimistic that there will be solutions and there will be the peace and security that the people want ... But that has to come by democratic principles."

She added: "The merger between the two parties [the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party] is a merger that is built day by day, challenge by challenge, but it only makes us stronger. Today, we can see the CNRP one step closer to being ready for the upcoming elections."

New old problems

Rainsy took to Twitter on Wednesday to write: "I understand & approve the changes which remove possible pretexts for govt to dissolve party before elections."

However, the same amendment to the political parties law that prompted Rainsy's resignation could befall some of the new leaders.

In 2009, Sochua was countersued for defamation by Hun Sen after she accused him of insulting her. Chhay Eang resigned twice from the Sam Rainsy Party, citing problems related to gambling, which is illegal for Cambodians -- despite the presence of casinos in the country. In February, photographs of Eang allegedly gambling at Phnom Penh's NagaWorld casino were posted on social media.

Sokha was given a royal pardon in December over a questionable prostitution charge, but could resurface for political reasons.

Sochua declined to comment on the matter. "Our focus is on the next elections and finding solutions, especially for the difficulties the Cambodian people are living with," she said. "That's where our energy is invested."

Sophal however noted the possibility that any of the CNRP's new leaders "could easily be forced out on trumped-up charges."

"You do have to hand it to them for putting themselves on the line like this," he said. "It's courageous, even if sometimes quixotic."

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