Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday sought to make clear that, although there will soon be two other people in Cambodia with a rank “equal” to his, only one man really calls the shots.
Last Friday, Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy agreed that the internal rules of parliament would soon be amended to officially recognise minority parties in the National Assembly, and specifically a US-style minority leader with a rank equal to the prime minister.
When the amendments occur and Rainsy formally takes up the position, he will join Prince Norodom Ranariddh in the top echelon of symbolic titlehood.
Ranariddh, as head of the Supreme Privy Council to the King, also enjoys a rank that on paper is equal to the stature of Hun Sen. But speaking to more than 1,000 graduates at the National Institute of Education in Phnom Penh yesterday, Hun Sen made it clear that such “equal” ranks carry no real power.
Without mentioning the opposition leader by name, Hun Sen alluded to the new post when he said, despite being officially equal to himself, Ranarridh does not hold sway over the armed forces or government.
“This is … a protocol arrangement under which [the official] cannot perform the premier’s affairs,” Hun Sen said.
“Some [people] may say that in Cambodia, there are two prime ministers … [but] I will just say one word … No. From now until 2018, the prime minister is called Hun Sen.”
Nonetheless, the purpose of officially recognising the parliament’s minority leader is to provide a “dialogue partner with the ruling party to talk about the problems of the nation”, he added.
“Our country is creating a culture of dialogue, [and how to create this] has become a topic of discussion between the Cambodian People’s Party and the Cambodia National Rescue Party, especially between me and HE Sam Rainsy.”
In the future, if more parties win seats in the assembly, any party with more than 5 per cent of seats could also form their own bloc and appoint a leader to discuss major issues, he said.
In an email yesterday, Rainsy made it clear that he holds no illusions about his new position, which some Cambodians initially reacted to dismissively with comparisons to the first and second prime ministerships established in the aftermath of the 1993.
UN-supervised elections to accommodate both then-Funcinpec leader Ranariddh and Hun Sen.
“‘A rank equivalent to prime minister’ is a formal title that carries no executive power whatsoever,” Rainsy said.
“It is only an honorific and symbolic privilege designed to allow the minority leader, as a leading legislator, to be a dialogue partner of the prime minister on issues of national interest, with the two partners being on a formally equal footing to make the dialogue meaningful.”
When asked whose idea it was for the new position to hold such a rank, Rainsy maintained he did not push for it.
“It was our common idea with the same understanding,” he said.
While Hun Sen and Rainsy have put their differences aside to make this and other recent deals, including the provision of TV and radio licences for the opposition, the premier yesterday swiped at the opposition's deputy leader Kem Sokha, whom he has consistently painted as a hardliner.
Days after Rainsy and Hun Sen’s deal last Friday, Sokha, who serves as first deputy president of the National Assembly, spoke bitterly about the government at a provincial public forum, levelling accusations from rampant corruption to murder.
Yesterday, Hun Sen suggested that such behaviour could see him voted out from the position, which was granted after the July 22 political deal that ended the CNRP’s 10-month boycott of parliament.
“In these [last] few days, I heard that a voice is shouting from somewhere. Do it, but if in the wrong manner, [you could] be voted out by a majority,” Hun Sen said.
“Don’t forget your role, you were appointed as first deputy president of the National Assembly; your role is to facilitate for parliamentarians, your role is not to go out and insult others.”
Sokha could not be reached for comment, and party spokesman Yim Sovann declined to comment on what he said was a personal matter.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KEVIN PONNIAH