PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Executive members of Cambodia's beleaguered opposition party on Sunday accepted the resignation of Sam Rainsy, its charismatic leader, and named his deputy, Kem Sokha, acting chief until a party congress can be held.
The action came a day after Sam Rainsy, who has been in self-imposed exile since late 2015, resigned his membership in the Cambodia National Rescue Party in response to plans by the government to change election laws so that political parties could be dissolved if their leaders have criminal convictions. He explained his decision in a video call to the meeting from Paris.
Sam Rainsy has stayed abroad to avoid a two-year prison term on a defamation conviction he had believed was covered by a pardon. Several other cases against him are pending. The opposition charges that Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People's Party use spurious legal cases to weaken their opponents, relying on politically compliant courts. Kem Sokha has also been a target, as have political and social activists.
Cambodia will hold nationwide local elections this June and a general election in 2018. The opposition CNRP hopes to building on its surprisingly strong showing in the 2013 general election. Hun Sen has previously said he intends to extend his three decades in power.
"The resignation of Sam Rainsy from the party presidency and membership came after discussion with the leaders of the party, and he did so for the sake of the party, the nation and with great honor," Kem Sokha said in a posting on his Facebook page.
Sam Rainsy already had been barred by the government from returning to Cambodia, so he had not been in a position to campaign ahead of this year's polls. However, as the party's dominant figure, his absence could spur infighting among his colleagues, weakening the party ahead of the more crucial general election.