The question has been raised whether the ruling Cambodian People Party (CPP) is the winner as the opposition party leader, Sam Rainsy, resigned from the presidency of the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on Saturday.
Rainsy’s resignation was seen as a surprise to his supporters, Cambodians in general, and politicians.
Cambodia's charismatic opposition leader and long-serving Prime Minister Hun Sen’s challenger, Rainsy said he was stepping down as party leader and member due to “personal issues” and “to protect the party from being dissolved.”
“If I am still the president and the party will be dissolved, so what is that for? It affects our benefits, the party and national interest,” he said in a Skype conference with supporters.
The day after his resignation, Kem Sokha, formally the party’s deputy leader, said that the resignation had been discussed beforehand among the party members.
“His excellency Sam Rainsy’s resignation is an honorable decision, which he had discussed within the CNRP leadership, to put the nation and CNRP interests first,” he said in a post on Facebook.
“The CNRP knows ourselves, where we came from and what our goals are,” he added.
Before his resignation, Rainsy and his party faced a series of political threats, including having the immunity of lawmakers stripped, several lawsuits against its leadership, and the revocation of Sokha’s position as the minority leader in parliament.
Hun Sen’s tactics have been widely seen as a strategy to divide the CNRP, which was formed by Rainsy and Sokha in 2012 to compete with Hun Sen in the 2013 elections.
Rainsy has faced several lawsuits filed by Hun Sen. In the most recent one, Hun Sen filed a complaint against him over an alleged claim that the premier had offered $1 million to a young social media activist, Thy Sovantha, to attack the CNRP. Hun Sen also filed a lawsuit against Rainsy for alleging that the ruling party was behind the assassination of political analyst Kem Ley in June.
In late January, Hun Sen began a legal process that could see people convicted of crimes being barred from leading political parties - and the parties dissolved if they break the rules.
Elizabeth Becker, a veteran journalist who reported from Cambodia in the 1970s, told VOA Khmer that it was an appropriate time for Sam Rainsy to resign.
“It was time for Sam Rainsy to resign, even without Hun Sen’s threats to imprison him and destroy the CNRP. The longer Sam Rainsy stayed abroad in exile the more ineffective he became as a leader,” she said.
“This will influence Cambodian politics. Now the CNRP will be led by people in the county. It will force the opposition to figure out how it will contest elections. That is showing good will and pointing his supporters in the direction of staying with the CNRP.”
Sophal Ear, an associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said that the decision was a last-ditch attempt to rescue the party.
“It saves the CNRP from dissolution. Maybe they'll respect him even more for his willingness to put the party above self; to put the nation above self. Too few politicians do that - they hang on to power too long,” he said in an email.
“He did it to save the CNRP from being dissolved. In the end, he didn't have much of a choice. But it's a small price to pay,” he added.
Sophal said Rainsy would continue to have a great influence on the party.
“It just means that he can't officially be the leader of [the] CNRP,” he said.
Ou Virak, head of the Future Forum think tank, said that Rainsy’s resignation was not the “last choice”, explaining that the party should find other solutions to fight against legal threats.
“It is not a good solution since there were threats and then he resigned” he said.
When asked whether the CPP had won, Virak said: “Not exactly. In the short term, I think the CPP is the winner, but not in the long run.”
CPP spokesman Sok Eysan said that Rainsy has been aware that the law would bar him from being president.
“The resignation is his personal issue. I think he is aware of his future and the amendment of the political law barring prisoners from being a party leader,” Eysan said.
Rainsy was granted a royal pardon in July 2013 for a 2009 conviction over his uprooting of border demarcation posts near the boundary with Vietnam, paving the way for him to return to Cambodia shortly before the last election.
However, it is unlikely he will receive another pardon ahead of the polls opening in 2018.
Lee Morgenbesser, a research fellow at Australia's Griffith University, told VOA Khmer that the resignation was a good strategy for Rainsy and the party.
“No one can say he has not been a great servant of the cause of democracy in Cambodia,” Lee said in an email.
“By resigning, he will still be able to serve the opposition in less direct and more informal ways. Indeed, he may prove to be more troublesome for the CPP without this official position. Only time will tell.”
After the resignation, the CNRP steering committee immediately held a meeting and issued a statement that the party accepted Rainsy’s resignation and Sokha would become the acting president until a new leader was announced.
A leaked statement published by government-aligned news website Fresh News, which the opposition denied, said that Rainsy has proposed his wife, Tioulong Saumura, take over his position.
Sokha, who was given a royal pardon in December at Hun Sen’s request after he was convicted of refusing to appear in court on another charge, is facing further claims of sexual misconduct.
Some 10 opposition lawmakers have faced allegations of impropriety, either sexual or gambling, prompted by the publication of audio recordings media has alleged depict them breaking the law or acting immorally.