Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy (front left) raises hands with Kem Sokha in 2014. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy
Cambodian opposition leaders Sam Rainsy, front left, raises the hand of Kem Sokha in 2014. The relationship between the two has always been fragile, but has now become strained. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

Eighteen months out from a pivotal general election, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is bidding to weaken its main political adversary, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP).

During his 32 years as Prime Minister, Hun Sen has proved a master of divide and rule politics by repeatedly siphoning off opposition members with promises of status and power. In November, his ruling party held a mass defection ceremony where 200 alleged members of the opposition formally joined the CPP, burning their CNRP t-shirts in the process.

The CNRP, meanwhile, is pawing at its own fissures in the hope of sealing them shut, wise to the fact that only through unity will it stand a chance of taking power through the polls in 2018. Recent months have witnessed a number of revealingly public spats about party divisions and internal decision-making. In October, Prince Sisowath Thomico, a prominent CNRP official, threatened to quit the party unless changes were implemented. “Behind the unity of Kem Sokha and Sam Rainsy,” he told local media, referring to the party’s vice-president and president, “everything else is divided and this is not acceptable.”

The CPP appears now to be driving a wedge between the two opposition leaders. On January 8, reporters in Cambodia received an email from Sam Rainsy, currently exiled in France, that included a declaration he said was produced by the CPP to force the CNRP to expel him as its president. The statement’s authenticity cannot be independently confirmed and the government has denied knowledge of its existence.

According to Sam Rainsy, Kem Sokha was sent the statement via a CPP-aligned media mogul. Though Kem Sokha reportedly refused to sign, it would have compelled the CNRP to expel any party members who insult Hun Sen’s family. Sam Rainsy also said that the ruling party had “bought” a number of opposition members to claim that he had made first family insults.

Cambodia’s Prime Minister and president of the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) Hun Sen (centre) allows supporters to take selfies with him on January 7, 2017. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

The timing of the CPP’s alleged intervention is key. In November 2015, Sam Rainsy went into self-imposed exile to avoid a two-year prison sentence over defamation accusations against a top CPP minister. Last July, he was convicted by a local court in a verdict he said was based on “politics and corruption.” The government’s decision in October to prevent his return to Cambodia means he is now officially exiled.

‘We cannot be bought’

Kem Sokha had already taken over as the party’s in-country leader but, on May 26, was forced into hiding in the CNRP’s headquarters to avoid arrest over an alleged sex scandal, widely seen as politically motivated. Four workers from the local human rights group Adhoc, and the deputy secretary-general of the National Election Commission, were also embroiled in the case and are currently being held in pre-trial detention.

According to Sam Rainsy, the government promised to release the five prisoners if Kem Sokha signed the statement removing him as party leader. In early December, however, Hun Sen made a surprise request for Kem Sokha to be granted a royal pardon. Kem Sokha met with Hun Sen days later at the National Assembly, after which the Prime Minister publicly announced Kem Sokha was parliament’s new “minority leader”, a title Sam Rainsy stills considers his own.

To be sure, Hun Sen would not have requested the royal pardon out of generosity; rather, he knows a split between opposition leaders could be fatal to the CNRP’s election chances. The CNRP was formed in 2012 by a merger of Sam Rainsy’s humbly-titled Sam Rainsy Party and Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party. Prior to the merger, the pair’s relationship was often fraught.

According to Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, a similar scenario involving Sam Rainsy being in self exile in France and Kem Sokha in Cambodia “didn’t stop the CNRP from nearly winning in 2013.” Sam Rainsy returned from exile just weeks before those polls, where the CNRP made unprecedented gains by winning 55 seats compared to the CPP’s 68.

The CNRP’s best pitch to the electorate rests on the credibility, reputation and unity of its two co-leaders and the promise of coherent political change

Sam Rainsy took to Facebook in December to deny accusations of rifts. “We cannot be bought,” he wrote. “He who is attempting to break us is unquestionably dreaming.” A month later, speaking to Radio France International, he reiterated that Kem Sokha is his “life-long partner in the rescue of the nation”.

Speculation is nevertheless hot and heavy among Phnom Penh’s chattering classes that Kem Sokha could be swayed into forming a power-sharing agreement with Hun Sen in 2018, as the royalist Funcinpec party did after elections in the early 1990s. While still unlikely, the tittle-tattle might give Sam Rainsy cause for pause, political analysts say. “I can imagine cabin fever in Paris,” said Sophal Ear, referring to Sam Rainsy’s exile in France, where he is distant from the everyday mechanics of the party amid rising questions about loyalty to his leadership.

This wasn’t helped by Sam Rainsy’s claim that he has collected an alleged list of CNRP members who “Hun Sen has bought and who are set to defame Sam Rainsy” — though he has not yet named names. Then there is the fact that Kem Sokha will soon meet with Interior Minister Sar Kheng, most likely to conduct negotiations over the five prisoners’ release. That closed-door session will, certainly, provide a setting for political horse-trading.

If the CNRP is to stand a chance of winning next year’s general election, analysts say the party must quickly get its house in order. Its best pitch to the electorate rests on the credibility, reputation and unity of its two co-leaders and the promise of coherent political change. Should that relationship falter, even in appearance, so too will the party’s prospects at the polls.