Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday scrapped an agreement with the Cambodia National Rescue Party to hold national elections five months early in February 2018, lambasting the opposition as “stupid” for never officially locking in the date as part of the deal to end their parliamentary boycott.
Flying in the face of an “in principle” deal struck with CNRP president Sam Rainsy that contributed to ending the nearly yearlong opposition boycott that followed the disputed 2013 elections, the premier said the vote must be held in July 2018, at the end of the National Assembly’s five-year mandate as per the constitution.
In a speech pundits say was about reasserting his dominance after several months of ostensibly friendlier ties with the opposition, the prime minister mocked the CNRP for not including early elections as a core point in the July 22 deal.
“I declare, the 2018 election will be held on Sunday, on the fourth week of July … not before, not later. The reason why is because all of you are stupid,” Hun Sen said directing his remarks to the opposition, which announced in May, after months of talks, that a joint agreement had been reached to hold a February vote.
Calling the CNRP liars and cheaters for publicising an early ballot, Hun Sen ruled out any changes to Article 78 of the country’s charter, which states the parliament shall not be dissolved before the end of its five-year term unless the government is deposed twice within a year.
“Now, the Article 78 will not be amended, because you are stupid,” he said.
“We are not stupid [enough] to have dissolved the government for rescheduled elections, and no one can dissolve the government besides the majority of guys here,” he said, referring to the heads of the armed forces, among those attending the opening of the Cambodia-China Takhmao Friendship Bridge in Kandal province.
Responding yesterday via email from France, CNRP president Sam Rainsy – who has of late enjoyed close ties with the premier amid their détente dubbed “the culture of dialogue” – remained vague when asked about Hun Sen reneging on the early elections, flagged as one of the opposition’s central demands to take their seats in parliament.
“With the type of regime we have, anything is possible in Cambodia,” Rainsy said.
”Things can change very quickly: they can go from good to bad or from bad to worse, but they can also revert to better or good. Depending on the environment we must strive to change on the basis of our principles.”
During his speech, Hun Sen also warned that the country faced instability if the CPP lost the election, but denied his remarks violated the “culture of dialogue” as he didn’t refer to a war, one of the words banned in the CPP and CNRP’s code of conduct.
Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said by taking the early elections off the table, the prime minister had further undermined the points negotiated by the CNRP last year and reasserted his dominance.
“It seems that Hun Sen is sending a very strong message that from here on out, it is going to be his way or the highway,” he said.
“The electoral law was a terrible mess, the National Election Committee was not reformed to the extent to which the CNRP would have wanted, and now there will be no early elections,” Strangio said.
“It’s hard to see what they’ve really gained.”
Independent commentator Ou Virak, founder of the political think-tank the Future Forum, said the date change, although unlikely to impact the election itself, was another attempt to divide the CNRP.
In April 2014, after agreeing to the “in-principle” February vote with Rainsy, Hun Sen blamed CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha, who had pushed for 2016 elections, for stalling the deal.
Having then allowed the CNRP to “save face” by agreeing to an early election, Hun Sen now wanted to embarrass and pressure the opposition, hoping differences of opinion on how to respond would split party ranks, Virak said.
“I am interested to see what they will do.”
Head of election monitor Comfrel Koul Panha added yesterday that a July ballot would mean lower turnouts given the risk of rain and flooding during rainy season.