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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - An opposition weapon neglected?

Lawmakers from the Cambodia National Rescue Party pose for photos on the steps of the National Assembly in August 2014 after being sworn in to parliament at the Royal Palace.
Lawmakers from the Cambodia National Rescue Party pose for photos on the steps of the National Assembly in August 2014 after being sworn in to parliament at the Royal Palace. Vireak Mai

An opposition weapon neglected?

In the face of a full-frontal political attack by the ruling CPP, the opposition has dropped what remains among their most powerful, though long-underutilised, weapons – their role as legislators, a veteran political consultant said yesterday.

For the third time this year, the Cambodia National Rescue Party on Monday boycotted a plenary session of the National Assembly.

The CNRP cited safety fears among reasons for the boycott, which allowed 66 Cambodian People’s Party lawmakers to pass next year’s budget, along with two other bills, without dissent.

“It is a mistake to boycott,” said Denis Schrey, the country director of Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung (KAS), who has worked with both the CNRP and CPP on parliamentary reform for more than four years.

“They should use every opportunity they have; I know they are of course afraid of security, I understand the reasons the atmosphere might be difficult.

“You have always means to do something. If they boycott, then they boycott. But they still should be constructive, even if the CPP doesn’t allow [their policy] changes, they can talk to the media and say ‘this is our proposal’.”

The current political environment is volatile.

Two opposition MPs were savagely beaten outside parliament by pro-CPP demonstrators; CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha has been ; and CNRP president Sam Rainsy, stripped of his lawmaker status and facing a two-year jail term, has chosen a third self-imposed exile in Europe.

But circumstances this time have changed, says Koul Panha, of government watchdog Comfrel.

With 55 of the 123 parliamentary seats, the chairmanship of five of 10 commissions and newly approved internal regulations designed to more clearly define the function of parliament, Panha said the CNRP should exploit their “constitutional role” as opposition legislators.

“Even if the [parliament’s] permanent committee controls the agenda, they [the CNRP] still have some legitimate role,” Panha said.

“The CNRP now has more than 30 members of parliament; this means that they can propose motions [of censure against the government] . . . they can generate discussion. Maybe they can’t get their policies into the plenary debate, but they can say this is my motion, this is a constitutionally legitimate motion.”

No draft bills have been submitted by lawmakers of either party since the CNRP took their seats last year, ending the 10-month parliamentary boycott that followed the disputed 2013 general election.

According to Article 91 of the Cambodian Constitution, members of the parliament and Senate have the right to initiate legislation.

According to CPP lawmaker and spokesman Sous Yara, deputies must first submit draft laws to the permanent committee.

The bill is then forwarded to relevant commissions, then returned to the permanent committee with a recommendation on whether it should be considered, he said.

Though the permanent committee has no explicit authority to kill lawmaker’s bills, and in theory should forward them to a plenary vote, Kem Monovithya, CNRP deputy director-general of public affairs, said the CPP uses their control of the committee and plenary agenda to reject the opposition proposals, a claim Yara denied.

Schrey said it was difficult to assess the procedure as so few lawmakers had submitted bills, with CNRP lawmaker Son Chhay’s access to information proposal in 2012 seemingly the last attempt.

Monovithya said yesterday that the party plans to increase its legislative output, though the current boycott remains necessary for lawmakers’ safety.

“The CNRP MPs should still propose drafts/amendments, although it will not go past even the [permanent committee], but for the sake of preparing legislation for when we have a majority in parliament,” Monovithya said, via email.

“And yes, the CNRP is planning on doing so: showing the constituents what laws a CNRP-led parliament would be adopting.”

She listed changes to the controversial NGO Law as “critical” and added that proposals for the education and agricultural sectors were being researched.

Buoyed by the new regulations, which he helped draft, Chhay also flagged an access to information law and amendments to judicial laws as priorities.

According to Monovithya, the CNRP will hold a workshop on the organisation and work of its parliamentary group on December 6.

Under Provision 48 of the new regulations, which KAS helped draft, each party is required to set up a parliamentary group and a mechanism to develop legislation, establish policy positions and communicate with media, which Schrey said was crucial for long-term development of Cambodia’s parliament.

“It is the duty of every MP and the committees later on to look deeper into the quality of the law,” he said.

“These groups, their key tasks are to prepare legislation, to amend legislation, and before any kind of law comes to the [parliamentary] committees, these groups should have already developed their clear position.”

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