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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - The CNRP’s opportunity

Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy greets supporters in Phnom Penh earlier this month
Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy greets supporters in Phnom Penh earlier this month. AFP

The CNRP’s opportunity

The de facto National Assembly and the de facto government rising from it will very soon gain de jure status, becoming legitimate state institutions when the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s 55 lawmakers-elect are sworn in and take their seats in parliament.

On Tuesday, the Cambodian People’s Party and the CNRP settled their differences, defusing the tension in the country that saw public demonstrations against the CPP, violent crackdowns against peaceful protests and the arrest of 25 garment factory workers in early January and seven CNRP lawmakers-elect and an activist last week.

This settlement has been met with mixed reactions. Many CNRP supporters have felt disappointment and resignation, believing the agreement fell short of what they wanted: a change of regime, a real investigation into the 2013 election and the appointment of a new NEC with a two-third majority in the National Assembly. There are sceptics who doubt both parties’ ability to work together to reform the NEC and the election system that caused the deadlock in the first place.

There is also praise and sighs of relief as the yearlong political stalemate has ended and those arrested CNRP members have been released.

Looking at the substance of the deal, one very much gets a feeling of deja vu. Taxpayers will foot the bill for power-sharing through the creation of more public offices. This is very much like the compromise after the 1993 elections, which resulted in co-prime ministers and co-ministers of interior and defence – one each for the two coalition parties, the CPP and Funcinpec.

In the new deal, the National Assembly is to have 10 committees. The CPP and the CNRP are each to control five of them, giving the impression of a balance of power. The deal purports to show that Cambodians can settle their differences in a peaceful manner. However, “reconciliation”, in the Cambodian context, is often taken to mean the surrendering of the weaker side to the powerful.

Following the 1993 UNTAC-organised elections, the coalition between the winner, Funcinpec, and the loser, the CPP, essentially amounted to the surrender of the former to the latter, which had control of bigger and stronger armed forces and of the machinery of government.

The latest deal was struck at a time when the CPP had exclusive control of the security forces and the government machinery. Furthermore, the CPP has a majority on the National Assembly’s standing committee, with seven of 13 members, including its chair and one of the two deputy chairs. Even more importantly, the CPP has control of the five committees with jurisdictions that are key to it administrating the country and maintaining an iron hand in its dealings with those who threaten its power: finance, interior and defence, foreign affairs, information and justice.

One should recall that, when it came to running Cambodia in 1992-1993, UNTAC had control of precisely these areas to administer the country and to create an environment in which free and fair elections could be held.

In the current deal, both parties are each to select four of nine NEC members and jointly select the ninth member by consensus. However, if such a consensus is not forthcoming, the status quo will be maintained, allowing the present NEC to continue to function and organise elections.

Why not have the two parties, when unable to reach a consensus, draw lots to select the ninth member? Were the negotiating teams not resourceful enough to think up this divine solution and adopt it in their deal? Perhaps. It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to foresee the CPP denying a consensus by design, because any deadlock would benefit the ruling party, which would be more than happy to keep the NEC as it is.

The deal contains many such flaws, demonstrating the opposition’s inability to clinch a fair deal. The CNRP was given lemons. It must now make lemonade. With 55 MPs and the court of public opinion behind it, the CNRP can effect meaningful change. It can get this assembly to exercise its power of oversight over the CPP government and hold it accountable. It can also garner a better understanding of how to run a country and how to address the specific problems plaguing Cambodia. Only by doing so can the CNRP truly promote itself as a credible alternative to the CPP.

Lao Mong Hay is a political analyst

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