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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Parties play political chairs

CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha (front left) sits alongside party president Sam Rainsy
CNRP deputy leader Kem Sokha (front left) sits alongside party president Sam Rainsy yesterday during a National Assembly session during which lawmakers voted in parliamentary heads. Heng Chivoan

Parties play political chairs

The election of the National Assembly leadership began in earnest yesterday, with proceedings in the newly filled parliament going largely to plan despite a few deviations from the agreed-upon script.

Among them was the apparent reluctance of Nguon Ngel to vacate his chair as first deputy president chair after the opposition's Kem Sokha was voted in to the position.

Although Prime Minister Hun Sen had publicly pledged that his 68 ruling Cambodian People’s Party lawmakers would abide by the July 22 political agreement that stipulated both parties would nominate a Cambodia National Rescue Party candidate as first deputy, a few CPP members also presumably decided to use the anonymity of the vote to express their dissent.

Four lawmakers voted against Sokha’s appointment, while two others abstained. With the absence of Palace Minister Kong Sam Ol – who is in China with King Norodom Sihamoni – Sokha received 116 votes out of a possible 122.

Dissent, from the CPP or otherwise, was nonexistent in the unanimous vote appointing Ngel as second deputy president, replacing Khuon Sodary and making way for Sokha.

But while Ngel was easily replaced by Sokha via the ballot, it took a bit more to get him to physically vacate his seat.

As Sokha’s nomination was announced by parliamentary president Heng Samrin, Sokha rose and made his way to the podium, formally greeting Samrin and then Ngel, who was seated in the first deputy’s chair to Samrin’s right.

After it became apparent that Ngel was not moving, Sokha ambled towards the empty chair of second deputy Sodary, now Ngel’s seat, to Samrin’s left. He stood there awkwardly for a few moments before Prime Minister Hun Sen rose from his front-row seat and exhorted Ngel to vacate his seat.

Ngel did not move, and he and Samrin instead appealed for the signage on the chairs distinguishing the first and second deputy to simply be swapped, as lawmakers began to laugh at the absurdity of the situation.

“Just walk [over there] quickly, it’s not a problem,” Prime Minister Hun Sen said again.

“Please, Excellency Nguon Ngel. Go to that side.”

After several minutes, the premier began to lose his patience.

“No, it is not right [that the signs be swapped]. Just for this, what is the difficulty? Just one [of you] walks to sit at that side and one comes to sit at this side. It is not even a little bit difficult.”

Finally, the pair swapped positions to applause from the assembly.

Speaking after the session, Sokha said that he did not believe that Ngel intended to snub him.

“It is just the urgent arrangement that created the difficulty. It was not his intention,” Sokha said, adding that Ngel may have thought that the seats would be changed at a later date despite the vote and thus was not prepared.

Ngel could not be reached for comment and Hun Sen did not speak to reporters after the session.

Sokha added that in his new position he would push for term limits to be imposed on the role of prime minister this mandate.

“I will propose it this term, but we will wait to see the atmosphere first, when we start to work together and know … [if] the Cambodian People’s Party, especially Samdech Hun Sen, has the will for this or not,” he said.

Yesterday, the assembly also appointed CNRP senior lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang as head of parliament’s commission on human rights, and standing committee chairman Pol Ham as head of the commission on investment, planning and agriculture.

The opposition whip, Son Chhay, was appointed deputy head of the banking and finance commission, underneath long-time CPP commission head Cheam Yeap.

Parliament will continue voting in its leadership today.

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