With King Norodom Sihamoni having left for Beijing yesterday for a routine medical check-up, a number of the monarch’s constitutional powers – including those pertaining to the transition period after elections – have passed to Senate President and Cambodian People’s Party leader Chea Sim.
However, despite a widely cited sense of tension among the general public, and concerns from the opposition that the King may be unable to fulfil his role as a key mediator between parties, both legal and political considerations may preclude the CPP from capitalising on its temporary hold on the powers of the head of state, analysts said yesterday.
According to political analyst Chea Vannath, the CPP is operating on a markedly different playing field than it was before the election.
“I think that the result of the election by itself is a wake-up call for the ruling party. The voters expect transparency and accountability from the ruling party, rather than using anything for political interests,” Vannath said. “That’s what the results of the election meant to them.”
Under the constitution, it is the King who calls the first meeting of the newly formed National Assembly, which is to take place no more than 60 days after the election. He also enjoys certain other powers, such as designating – at the request of the president and vice-presidents of the assembly – which member of the winning party will be responsible for forming the government.
“September is the time when they need the role of the King,” said Koul Panha, executive director of election watchdog Comfrel, referring to the scheduled release date of the official vote tally. “Whether or not the NEC releases official election results soon depends on the opposition, whether they appeal the results or not.”
The King already issued a statement yesterday, saying he “will repatriate to the motherland soon in the future in order to preside over the first session of the fifth mandate of the National Assembly”.
The King’s adviser, Prince Sisowath Sirirath, estimated that Sihamoni would return in 10 to 14 days, but that the timeframe “depends on the Chinese doctor”.
However, if the final results are in, said Panha, there is nothing to legally prevent an acting head of state from convening the assembly in the King’s absence, regardless of the monarch’s health or intentions.
“The law still allows him to replace the King’s role. They do not talk about whether there needs to be a delegation or not when absent,” he said, referring to a 1999 article of the constitution. “I think they amended the law to make sure things go smoothly when the King is absent.”
Nonetheless, recent troop movements and threats of mass demonstrations have made the King’s leaving more portentous among the general public, said Thun Saray, president of Comfrel’s board of directors.
“Maybe this happened by coincidence, but the King should not leave the country in a time of political tension,” he said.
According to Vannath, however, that very tension may serve as a calming influence on both the opposition and the ruling party.
“Both of them, they try to better behave, and not to disturb, and not to stir the emotion or sentiment of the public,” she said.
“Of course you know about the action, but you never know about the reaction, and the reaction of the people right now is quite agitated.”
Cambodia National Rescue Party chief whip Son Chhay said yesterday that he was concerned at the King’s leaving, adding that “it’s only the King” who can serve as impartial mediator.
“But now, since he left, the role of head of state is under the hand of the CPP. The senate, the army, the court, the Constitutional Council, the Supreme Council of Magistracy, and everything is already under the hand of the CPP,” he said. “So who can our people rely on with no institution that can be relied on?”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ABBY SEIFF