CPP set to amend laws to take all of CNRP’s commune chief seats

CPP lawmakers, seen on a monitor at the National Assembly, sit in the body’s half-empty chambers during a plenary session that was boycotted by the opposition CNRP yesterday amid an intensifying political crackdown.
CPP lawmakers, seen on a monitor at the National Assembly, sit in the body’s half-empty chambers during a plenary session that was boycotted by the opposition CNRP yesterday amid an intensifying political crackdown. Hong Menea

Newly leaked proposed amendments to Cambodia’s election law reveal that the CPP would be eligible to take all 489 of the CNRP’s commune chief seats in the event of the opposition’s dissolution, leaving the ruling party in control of all but one of the country’s 1,646 communes.

The newly proposed Article 20 explains that if a political party abandons its seat, or is removed, the seats will be “distributed to candidates of other political parties that competed in the commune election within 14 days”.

The article contrasts with proposed amendment to the National Assembly Election Law – also recently leaked – which specifies that parties currently in parliament will not be eligible to take newly vacant seats. If the CNRP is indeed dissolved, its seats will be proportionally awarded to a handful of minor parties, rather than going to the CPP, as they would have been under the current law.

The Cambodia National Rescue Party – the country’s largest opposition and the only current legitimate competitor to the long-ruling Cambodian People’s Party – is under threat of dissolution following a formal complaint to the Supreme Court lodged by the Ministry of Interior. The party’s president, Kem Sokha, is currently in pretrial detention on widely decried charges of “treason” for saying he received political advice from the US.

Other recent changes to the country’s Law on Political Parties – rammed through parliament by the ruling party earlier this year – forbid parties from associating with “convicts” or colluding with foreign powers.

Though Sokha has yet to be convicted, and no evidence for his alleged treason has been presented apart from a publicly available 2013 video in which he made the remarks, Prime Minister Hun Sen promised on Wednesday that the party’s dissolution will happen “soon”.

The commune council and chief seats would be redistributed according to official vote tallies, minus all votes cast for the party abandoning or being removed from its seats. According to that formula, CPP would end up with 1,645 out of 1,646 commune chief positions. One commune in Banteay Meanchey is held by the minor Khmer National United Party – whose founder and former president, Nhek Bun Chhay, is currently awaiting trial on years-old drug charges.

Prime Minister Hun Sen registers his attendance before walking into a session at the National Assembly yesterday in Phnom Penh.
Prime Minister Hun Sen registers his attendance before walking into a session at the National Assembly yesterday in Phnom Penh. Hong Menea

CPP spokesman Sok Eysan confirmed that the leaked draft was authentic, but despite the fact that the ruling party drafted the amendment itself, he denied that the CPP would take those seats.

“How can we say that we distribute the seat to this or that party? We need to wait until the National Assembly adopts [the law] first,” he said.

The proposed amendments yesterday were forwarded to the Legislative and Justice Committee of the National Assembly, where the CPP has all the votes it needs to pass the amendments intact.

Kim Sour Phirith, a CNRP lawmaker and member of the committee, boycotted the National Assembly session yesterday along with all of his opposition colleagues. “We’d go if we can prevent them from doing that, but they can do whatever they want. We’d be sitting, sharpening the knife for them to slit our throat,” Phirith said.

Noting the differences in the draft laws at the Assembly and commune levels, Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said that the National Assembly seats are “symbolic” and “abstract” in comparison to commune seats, which are the “bedrock” and “backbone” of the CPP’s true power.

“The commune level presence of the CNRP . . . represented a more significant challenge to the CPP’s power than the CNRP occupying some minority position in the National Assembly,” he said.

Strangio also noted that the pressure on the CNRP had been stepped up after their unprecedented success in the recent commune elections. “Ever since that result we’ve seen dramatic escalation,” Strangio said.

Explaining the government’s decision to give away the CNRP’s National Assembly seats while capturing its communes, Strangio said that the CPP occupying every single assembly seat would catch the attention of the international community in a way that its taking all but one commune won’t.

“National politics is what everyone looks at,” he said.

Prime Minister Hun Sen and Interior Minister Sar Kheng, front row, raise their hands.
Prime Minister Hun Sen and Interior Minister Sar Kheng, front row, raise their hands. Hong Menea

Speaking from Berlin, where she fled following threats of arrest, opposition Deputy President Mu Sochua said the CPP “want to take back their base they lost to CNRP”. She added that while minor parties might prove compliant partners in the National Assembly, “these parties won’t help them keep grassroots control”.

Sochua spoke with other party leaders about the Supreme Court case over the party’s dissolution on Wednesday night, but declined to comment on the outcome.

Peng Heng, one of the lawyers working on Sokha’s treason case, said two of his colleagues on Wednesday also discussed the dissolution case with the imprisoned Sokha, who has continued to abstain from giving power of attorney to any lawyer to represent the CNRP.

“He considers it to be a political game. It’s not about the rule of law,” Heng said.Dr Paul Chambers, a lecturer at the College of Asean Community Studies at Naresuan University, said the CPP’s “parliamentary manipulation game” is all part of a plot to conquer the opposition.

“With the CNRP gone, the CPP has the chance to completely control the commune seats,” he said, adding that these local officials can help influence the crucial upcoming national election scheduled for next July. “They can help distribute CPP ‘pork barrel’ items to local voters while monitoring them for possible signs of dissent.”

He added that the passage of the laws is now inevitable. “In Cambodia today, proposed laws by the CPP might not yet de jure be law but de facto they are.”