PHNOM PENH -- Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen is considering reversing a ban on more than 100 opposition politicians to avert European Union sanctions that could plunge the country into an economic crisis.
But while it appears the Cambodian government is attempting to save its preferential access to the EU market through the "Everything But Arms" initiative, the country's outlawed opposition is in turmoil and does not look able to capitalize on any concessions.
The EU in November began a formal procedure to scrap Cambodia's duty-free access to the single market, meaning its garments, sugar and other exports could face tariffs within a year. The unprecedented move came after a political crackdown that resulted in the outlawing of the Cambodia National Rescue Party, the arrest of its leader, Kem Sokha, and the banning of more than 100 senior opposition officials. One of the EU demands was the reinstatement of the CNRP.
On Monday, Cambodia's Foreign Ministry said the National Assembly was "reviewing legal provisions to enable individuals who were banned from politics to resume political activities."
The move is by far the biggest indicator yet of steps the Cambodian government may be willing to take to prevent the withdrawal of the European trade preferences, which could be catastrophic for the Cambodian economy.
But few expect Hun Sen to fully reinstate the CNRP, a move that would be a huge loss of face.
"I think he's willing to go far, but I think there are some things he won't agree to," said Ou Virak, director of the Future Forum, a public policy think tank in Phnom Penh. Virak said the EU would be open to negotiations, and that allowing some of the 118 banned politicians to return could be part of a compromise.
"The main, big question is what would happen to the CNRP commune councilors -- whether they could get reinstated in some capacity. I think that's the main request by the EU," he said, adding that Hun Sen would be wary of reinvigorating the CNRP's grassroots.
However, the CNRP is in disarray, with the party appearing fractured on factional lines.
Born in 2012 out of an uncomfortable merger between the Sam Rainsy Party and Sokha's Human Rights Party, the CNRP has so far managed to keep factional divisions out of the public eye. But these splits have risen to the surface in recent weeks as Rainsy was nominated "acting president," upsetting Sokha, who is currently under house arrest in Phnom Penh on charges widely thought to be politically motivated.
Kem Monovithya, Sokha's eldest daughter, who was the former CNRP deputy director-general of public affairs, has since called Rainsy a liar and accused him of leading a "smear campaign" against her father.
Despite the turmoil, Monovithya downplayed any suggestion that a split CNRP could affect the EU's demands for the party to be reinstated.
"CNRP internal matters have no bearing on what the international community do with the CPP government," she said.
Sophal Ear, a political analyst and associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said that despite the EU taking a "big-picture approach," internal strife within the opposition was playing into Hun Sen's hands.
"The ruling party has wanted this to happen ever since the CNRP was created, and certainly after 2013. If you can't beat them, split them. And that is now happening under the auspices of the ruling party," he said, adding that he hoped the EU would not revise its list of demands.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said allowing opposition figures to return had nothing to do with threats coming from Europe. "It's completely different. This [action] is about the balance between the rule of law and the political environment, and making the democracy stronger," he said.
With negotiations between the EU and the Cambodian government ongoing, further concessions are likely. However, Virak said there could be splits within the CNRP over the trade preferences, with Sokha's faction hoping for a deal, while Rainsy urges the EU to hold firm on its threats.
"The Kem Sokha faction -- he's in prison so the hope is [for] a deal, not a crisis," he said. "But I think if you're outside the country you probably want continuous pressure until there is some major concession or some cracks within the regime."