Kem Sokha (right) is now the leader of the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy
Kem Sokha (right) is now the leader of the leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party. Photo: AFP / Tang Chhin Sothy

Cambodia’s main opposition party named its new leader on Thursday following the surprise resignation of its president, as it looks for ways to challenge Prime Minister Hun Sen’s three-decade rule.

Sam Rainsy, who had been at the forefront of the kingdom’s opposition movement for two decades, quit as leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in a letter posted on social media last month.

He currently resides in France in self-exile after fleeing prosecutions that he said were politically motivated.

His surprise departure cast doubt over the only party that can realistically challenge Hun Sen’s hold on power in local elections later this year and at crunch national polls in 2018.

On Thursday, the CNRP named Kem Sokha – the deputy party leader – as its new president along with three new deputies.

Kem Sokha told hundreds of party members he was confident of electoral success although he admitted the opposition had been hit by “political storms.”

“We know clearly that the path to upcoming victories and a positive change with non-violence is full of obstacles,” he said, adding many Cambodians have a “mentality for change.”

Hun Sen has overseen Cambodia’s transition from a country ravaged by genocide to one of the region’s fastest growing economies.

But many Cambodians have grown weary of endemic corruption and rights abuses while Hun Sen’s family and friends have also become hugely wealthy over the years.

As a result the CNRP has seen its popularity soar, helped by a young and social media savvy population aching for change.

They made significant gains at the last national election in 2013 and accuse Hun Sen of rigging the ballot against them, something he denies.

Senior party leaders, including Kem Sokha, have since been hit with a slew of court cases – part of what rights groups say is a deliberate plan to hobble the opposition ahead of upcoming elections.

Cambodia’s parliament last month gave judges sweeping powers to dissolve political parties, a move seen as a brazen attempt by Hun Sen to checkmate his opponents ahead polls.

The controversial new amendments passed empower the supreme court to dissolve any party which violates the constitution, “incites” the public or whose leaders are convicted of a crime.

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