Cambodian opposition party elects new leader ahead of polls

AP News
Posted: Mar 02, 2017 4:58 AM
Cambodian opposition party elects new leader ahead of polls

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — Cambodia's only parliamentary opposition party has selected a new leader after his predecessor stepped down because of legal problems that threatened to have the group dissolved.

Kem Sokha was formally elected leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party on Thursday at a special meeting of party leaders at its headquarters in the capital, Phnom Penh.

The party plans to contest nationwide local elections in June and a general election in 2018, but has come under intense pressure from Prime Minister Hun Sen and his ruling Cambodian People's Party, which fought off an unexpectedly tough challenge from the opposition group in the 2013 general election.

Former party leader Sam Rainsy stepped down last month after Hun Sen announced legislation that would make parties whose leaders have criminal convictions subject to dissolution. Sam Rainsy has been in exile since late 2015, when a defamation conviction many people thought was covered by a pardon was revived.

The ruling party has been using the courts to pressure opponents, bringing cases that the opposition says are politically motivated. The court system is generally seen as being under the influence of the ruling party.

Kem Sohka was also the target of a criminal prosecution in an elaborate case involving allegations of sexual misconduct, but his conviction was wiped clean by a royal pardon requested by Hun Sen.

In a speech to party members, Kem Sokha vowed Thursday to unseat Hun Sen, who has been in power for three decades and has announced his intention not to step down.

"Our party is strong," Kem Sokha said. "We are determined to hold fast to our path and will not backtrack, despite the ups and downs we've been having recently."

Kem Sokha said if the opposition party wins next year's election, they won't consider their political opponents to be enemies.

"National unity and reconciliation is our main priority," Kem Sokha said. "We will stick to it."

Hun Sen sent a letter of congratulations to Kem Sokha shortly after his election.