Outspoken radio host Mam Sonando is once again at the helm of the Beehive Social Democratic Party, after he was voted back in as president at the party’s congress on Sunday.
Sonando resigned from leadership in August after Beehive’s poor showing in the June commune elections but said the forced dissolution in October of the main opposition party, the Cambodia National Rescue Party, gave him an opportunity to compete.
“I really positively believe in joining the upcoming elections, and if we have success or not, it depends on the residents. But I just want to make sure that people are understanding the current political situation,” he said.
“After the CNRP was dissolved, people are aware of it and they’ll support the Beehive party, as they only have one path.”
But in an email, former CNRP President Sam Rainsy challenged Sonando’s willingness to fill the political void.
“Nothing can replace the CNRP as the only viable opposition party, the only real and popular democratic force feared by Hun Sen,” he said.
Without the participation of the CNRP in an “honest election”, he said, the 2018 poll would be nothing more than “a theatrical show”.
Legal uncertainty could also cloud Sonando’s leadership. New amendments to the Law on Political Parties rushed through parliament last year mean that people with criminal convictions cannot hold senior leadership positions within political parties, unless they have received a royal pardon or their sentences were suspended. It is unclear from the law’s language, however, if the sentence must have been suspended at the time of the conviction.
Sonando was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2012 on charges of “incitement” and of fomenting a secessionist plot. After international outcry, his sentence was reduced after eight months and suspended.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said he was unsure if Sonando would be able to keep his position. “I have not yet received a report,” he said. “Let our lawyers verify it.”
Ruling CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said Cambodia was indeed a “multiparty democracy” as 35 political parties were registered at the Interior Ministry.
“If grandfather Sonando wants to join the political stage, it is his right,” Eysan said. “It shows democracy. We are not narrow-minded.”
Asked about Sonando’s prior conviction, Eysan incorrectly claimed he had been pardoned by the King and said “raising the old case, it is not correct”.
Additional reporting by Ben Sokhean