This afternoon, the 55 opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party politicians who won office in last year’s disputed election will officially take their oaths as lawmakers in front of King Norodom Sihamoni, ending more than 10 months boycotting parliament.
The ceremony at the Royal Palace, announced yesterday, comes two weeks after the CNRP and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party inked a deal to end the yearlong political deadlock that began after the opposition rejected last July’s election result.
The agreement was made with eight opposition officials behind bars over a violent protest on July 15. They were released hours afterwards.
On Saturday, another three youth-wing members were arrested, which the CNRP said was tantamount to further “intimidation”.
Nonetheless, the party decided to officially join parliament today after finalising constitutional and legal amendments that will be pushed through the assembly as part of agreed-upon reforms between the parties, officials said yesterday.
“It [the swearing-in] is confirmed tomorrow at 4pm at the palace, but we will meet at the National Assembly at 3pm,” senior lawmaker and public affairs head Mu Sochua said yesterday afternoon, following an internal party meeting.
A statement from the palace also confirmed the ceremony after a flurry of letters requesting it, first from CNRP president Sam Rainsy to National Assembly chairman Heng Samrin, and then from the assembly to the palace.
CNRP officials could not confirm when they would take their seats in a special session of parliament but said it would happen in the days after today’s oath-taking.
Government spokesman Phay Siphan said that the CNRP could take its seats on Thursday.
“I don’t want to speak on behalf of the CNRP, but this is from official sources on the CPP side,” he said, adding that today’s swearing-in would mark a “new chapter” in Cambodian democracy.
“Right now, the CPP as well as the CNRP understand fully that divisions do not help democracy.”
The July 22 agreement saw the CNRP win, among other concessions, an overhaul of the National Election Committee – which it has maintained is a partisan institution that needs to be reformed in order to make the next election free and fair – in exchange for joining parliament.
The past two weeks have seen working groups jostle over details of reforms. While negotiations in some areas have proceeded smoothly, other areas have been more thorny.
In particular, the issue of immunity for the nine members of the new NEC emerged as a possible stumbling block last week, with the CPP strongly opposing that provision, which was backed by the CNRP.
The overhauled NEC will be composed of four members selected by each party, and a “consensus” candidate.
Pung Chhiv Kek, a prominent rights activist, was chosen by both parties as the ninth candidate, but she set parliamentary-style immunity as a condition for accepting.
It now appears the opposition has compromised.
Yesterday, CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said that immunity will no longer be included in constitutional amendments that will enshrine the new NEC.
“We will find a sentence or word similar to the meaning of ‘immunity’, and we will put it into the election law [not the constitution] to defend NEC members from arrest and mistreatment,” he said.
Kek could not be reached for comment as to whether she would still accept her nominated position.
In a letter to Rainsy yesterday morning, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said that the CPP supported draft constitutional amendments discussed in a meeting of working groups on Friday.
But Kheng asked for provisions related to the “autonomy” of the NEC and how departing members would be replaced.
“[The CPP] views it as unnecessary to include these points in the constitution, because the constitution is the highest law in the nation and should state the main principles only,” he wrote.
The minister added that the draft amendments without those provisions would still “guarantee the independence and neutrality of the NEC”.
According to Sochua, Rainsy agreed to Kheng’s demands, following which he requested today’s oath-taking ceremony.
Separately yesterday, a group of prominent watchdogs and independent experts including Comfrel, the Cambodian Center for Human Rights and NGO Forum called on both political parties to make specific changes to the internal rules of parliament in order to bolster “the effectiveness and transparency of the parliamentary process”.
While the parties have agreed to review and amend internal rules to strengthen the role of the opposition, few details have been released.
Among the groups’ recommended changes are that parliament should hold public hearings once a week in which experts and “relevant stakeholders” can testify on draft, proposed and existing laws.
The opposition should also be formally recognised, be allowed to assign a spokesperson “for the oversight of government ministries” and be entitled to request debate on government policies, they say.
Parliamentary records and documents, except those concerning national security, should also be made public, while oral and written responses from the government to questions from MPs should be required within 15 days.
A motion of censure against the government should require the backing of at least 30 MPs to allow discussion of it, the groups argue, and if such a motion is raised twice, the assembly must conduct a public session to discuss voting on the dismissal of cabinet members or the government.
“We stand ready to work with both the ruling and opposition parties to provide further guidance on implementation of these amendments if provided the opportunity to do so,” they wrote in a joint statement, which included the recommended changes in formal legal language.