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Monks gather behind a barricade along Sisowath Quay
Monks gather behind a barricade along Sisowath Quay. VIREAK MAI

Assembly, a house divided

With the hours ticking down to this morning’s scheduled opening session of the National Assembly, the opposition party yesterday staged its own oath-taking ceremony, swearing in 63 “lawmakers-elect” at Angkor Wat.

On the temple grounds, the lawmakers vowed to respect the will of the people by boycotting today’s session. In addition to the 55 legally recognised by the National Election Committee, eight candidates who the opposition maintains also won seats took part.

“Tomorrow, we will show solidarity by staying on Angkor territory with all people who are patriots and willing to love justice. Those who go to join the session in Phnom Penh … are not proper parliamentarians. Our ceremony is more important than anything,” Cambodia National Rescue Party president Sam Rainsy told the hundreds who gathered around the praying lawmakers.

Some 300 kilometres away, staffers finished festooning the National Assembly with banners and ribbons as authorities secured the area – preparing fire trucks, barricades and razor wire ahead of a tense day.

Save an 11th-hour deal signed after press time, 68 lawmakers from the ruling Cambodian People’s Party will ascend the red carpet and attend this morning’s opening session of the National Assembly presided over by King Norodom Sihamoni. They are set to be sworn in at the Royal Palace either late today or tomorrow, absent their CNRP counterparts.

And though the election of the president and appointment of the new government will not take place until Tuesday at the earliest, an opening session that lacks CNRP lawmakers would likely lead to more unrest.

“It’s cracking our society,” political analyst Lao Mong Hay said. “Tomorrow, the CPP will go on without the elected opposition party. And I don’t know how it can rule the country like this – when almost half of the country is left out. How can our rulers go around and meet these people, when almost half of them are not prepared to accept this rule?”

A 2006 constitutional amendment allows laws to be passed by a simple majority, but the appointment of the new government and election of parliamentary leaders appears to require a quorum of 120 of 123 lawmakers.

The ruling party, however, has interpreted the constitution differently than most legal analysts and promised to hold parliamentary sessions with or without the opposition present. In late July, just days after the election, Prime Minister Hun Sen assured the public that a government could be established with only CPP lawmakers.

“We need only 50 per cent +1 of the NA [to vote in a new government],” CPP spokesman and Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith reiterated yesterday.

But ploughing ahead with that promise would send Cambodia back decades, analysts said yesterday.

“If the first meeting happens tomorrow, it will have a huge impact on Cambodian society. Cambodia will be going back to a communist country, going back to Burma in 1998. Economic crises, social crises, and political crises may happen if the first meeting happens and they continue to go ahead with the National Assembly structure and formation of the government,” political analyst Kem Ley predicted.

CNRP supporters gather outside Siem Reap province’s Angkor Wat
CNRP supporters gather outside Siem Reap province’s Angkor Wat temple yesterday. THIK KALIYANN

The CPP’s top officials have repeatedly stated that should the opposition boycott, the ruling party – as the only other winning party – is legally allowed to take their seats. Legal experts have called such claims a gross misinterpretation of the law, but analysts have predicted the party would be unlikely to make good on such threats.

Yesterday, they appeared to table that possibility, with Kanharith saying: “CPP can take over only when CNRP makes an official announcement to do so [abandon their seats].”

But he brushed aside claims that a government would be illegitimate if voted on by only one party.

“The National Assembly was convened according to the Constitution and process in the legal framework. The CNRP decided to boycott the session, [they were] not forced out,” he said.

Meetings between the CPP and CNRP last week showed hints of progress, with both parties agreeing to electoral reforms and further talks. But they have since stalled, and opposition spokesman Yim Sovann said there had been no response from the CPP regarding the latest round of negotiations.

Instead of attending tomorrow’s session, he said, the CNRP will stage its own ceremony at a Siem Reap pagoda.

Asked whether the party was staying far afield to prevent their lawmakers from being tempted to attend today’s session by the ruling party, Sovann insisted discord was a thing of the past.

“The situation is different now. We are very proud of our elected members of parliament.… Now they come together, this has never happened before.”

While Sovann promised today’s session would lead to greater unrest, ruling party lawmakers downplayed such predictions.

“There is no more political deadlock. We can have a smooth day tomorrow, no matter what,” senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said.

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