Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy stepped down as president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party on Saturday. The exiled politician and his party members have come under rising political pressure ahead of crucial elections. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy
Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy stepped down as president of the Cambodia National Rescue Party on Saturday. The exiled politician and his party members have come under rising political pressure ahead of crucial elections. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

In a dramatic development, Cambodian opposition leader Sam Rainsy resigns as president of his Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) amid rising political pressure and ahead of crucial provincial elections in June that analysts expect to be hotly contested.

Rainsy stepped down from the CNRP on Saturday in a bid to save it from possible legal dissolution in a move that comes ahead of crucial commune elections scheduled for June and general election in 2018.

Analysts expect both the commune and general elections to be hotly contested between the CNRP and the long-ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP).

Prime Minister Hun Sen recently moved to introduce legislation that would bar convicted people from leading political parties and dissolve parties that are led by individuals found guilty of domestic crimes.

The National Assembly was expected to deliberate on the proposed bill on April 1, but media reports suggested it could be voted into law as early as Monday.

Sam Rainsy said on Friday that the proposed law was “tailor-made” to purge him from the CNRP and to “institutionalize a one-party system.” He has been convicted of defamation charges in the past and a number of similar charges are pending. Last week, an appeals court upheld a ruling that found him guilty of defaming a government official over claims the individual had purchased “likes” for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Facebook page.

Sam Rainsy has not been in Cambodia since November 2015, when he decided not to return from a party meeting held abroad to avoid a possible prison sentence related to an earlier defamation charge. He subsequently went into self-imposed exile in France, though in October 2016 the CPP-led government ordered immigration officials to prevent his return, from which point he was officially exiled.

Kem Sokha, CNRP’s vice-president and acting party leader since late 2015, wrote on Facebook on Sunday that Sam Rainsy’s resignation was “honorable,” adding that “the opposition party is fully aware of itself, where it comes from, what it does and what it hopes to achieve.”

The CNRP, a pro-democracy party, is the main competitor of the CPP, which has ruled the country consecutively since 1979. Hun Sen has ruled as prime minister since 1985.

Since 2015 his government has scaled up attacks on CNRP activists and its allied civil society members. Sam Rainsy’s decision not to return to Cambodia in late 2015 disappointed many Cambodians who felt he should stand up in person to the government’s campaign of harassment and intimidation, especially after saying days before that he would return to Cambodia “even if I die.”

Some commentators felt Sam Rainsy had becoming increasingly obsessed with his personal competition with Hun Sen, his long-time adversary dating back to the 1990s, at the expense of the party. That fuelled widespread speculation that the party, nominally united under Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha’s joint leadership, had cracked on factional lines since its historic electoral gains in 2013.

Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) President Sam Rainsy (left) stepped down from his post over the weekend, while First Vice-President Kem Sokha is acting leader. Photo: AFP/Tang Chhin Sothy

Those divisions were apparently accentuated when Kem Sokha went into hiding in Phnom Penh early last year to avoid possible imprisonment over a dubious prostitution charge. He finally left the CNRP’s headquarters in December after Hun Sen personally requested he be granted a royal pardon.

That sparked rumors that the prime minister was trying to turn Kem Sokha against Sam Rainsy by using divide and rule tactics. Hun Sen’s government will undoubtedly perceive the resignation of the party’s founder as evidence that its campaign of intimidation and repression is bearing political fruit at a crucial juncture in the election cycle.

It is unclear, however, how Sam Rainsy’s resignation will impact the opposition’s electoral chances. Even without Sam Rainsy as its figurehead, the CNRP is still expected to carry the urban and youth demographics that voted overwhelmingly for the party in 2013. Kem Sokha is believed to have stronger support than Sam Rainsy in rural areas, a vote the party must win if it hopes to take power in 2018.

Many Cambodians will respect Sam Rainsy for his apparent “willingness to put the party above himself,” Sophal Ear, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College, Los Angeles, told Asia Times. “A man resigns, but not his ideas. You can shut people up with a gun to their heads, but you cannot make them love you,” he added.

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen arrives for a photo with other leaders at the Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) summit held in July 2016. Photo: Reuters/Damir Sagolj

The CNRP is unlikely to change its political focus or approach to the upcoming commune elections in June or next year’s general election, political analysts say. Indeed, the change in nominal leadership may compel the CNRP to boost its engagement with grass-roots members and voters to explain its future direction.

Kem Sokha is acting leader of the CNRP, while Agence France-Presse reports that after a party meeting on Sunday spokesman Yim Sovann said a new chief would not be selected until April 2018, months before the scheduled commune elections. Sam Rainsy’s deputy Kem Sokha will continue to serve as acting leader and guide the party through the local polls, he added.

There is still speculation, however, over who will take over as vice-president, though some analysts expect the position to be filled by a well-known Sam Rainsy ally, perhaps even his wife, Tioulong Saumura, a former deputy governor of Cambodia’s National Bank and CNRP lawmaker. Sam Rainsy will continue to be “a huge shadow behind the scenes,” said Ou Virak, head of the Phnom Penh-based Future Forum, a think tank.

Another possible nominee could be Yim Sovann, the CNRP’s current spokesman who has been aligned with Sam Rainsy’s numerous political parties since the mid-1990s.

The CNRP was created in 2012 as a merger between the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and Kem Sokha’s Human Rights Party (HRP). The party, however, is still divided into factions loyal to their respective former leaders, making it necessary to balance power between the party’s two top positions.

While Sam Rainsy may no longer be the CNRP’s president, few analysts believe his departure signals an end to his long and storied political career. Indeed, some already believe he could leverage the move to his eventual political advantage. “People love underdogs,” said academic Sophal Ear. “They love comebacks even more.”

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