While a bipartisan election reform committee meeting today is meant only to discuss technical reforms and leave key political concessions to future top-level talks, observers yesterday said a lot more is likely to be on the table.
That hope comes despite public barbs having been traded between Prime Minister Hun Sen and Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy last week.
Last Tuesday, Hun Sen lifted a ban on public assembly, but said that any future opposition demonstrations would be met with counter-demonstrations by Cambodian People’s Party supporters who have “equal rights” – interpreted by the opposition as a veiled threat of future intimidation.
The following day, Rainsy compared the Kingdom’s protest movement to recent upheavals in Ukraine that felled “a dictator”, predicting that millions would join future demonstrations and that security forces would side with protesters if asked to take action.
But such bluster is symptomatic of “the culture of politics in Cambodia”, said analyst Kem Ley, who predicted that behind closed doors today, politicians would try to lay the groundwork for a future meeting between their respective leaders to end the CNRP’s boycott of parliament.
“If we look at the [seniority] of the six [CPP] members of the committee that will join tomorrow, it seems they will not just discuss electoral reform.… [They] will raise political concessions and options for the top leaders’ meeting,” he said.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak concurred with Ley that the leaders’ public pronouncements – which often, especially in the case of Hun Sen, flip-flop between hostility and engagement – could not be taken as a true indicator of where relations between the parties really stand.
He added that any talks about election reform would have to “be in the wider context of other kinds of agreements”.
“It has to be beyond election reform, what we’re going to get, how we are going to get [it].… [And] when is this election reform supposed to be having an impact on wider society? Why else would the CPP be sitting in that meeting [if it was only about election reform and not about other political issues]?”
Son Chhay, the head of the CNRP’s delegation to the committee, said last week that the parties would solely focus on researching necessary election reforms and not touch key opposition demands such as an early election.
Both election watchdogs and the CNRP have in the past pointed out that Cambodia has no shortage of recommendations for election reform from international and local observers.
Senior CPP lawmaker and committee member Cheam Yeap echoed Chhay yesterday.
“As our party line, we will not talk with the CNRP on other topics,” he said.
But there are signs that some insiders are hoping for more.
“Let’s see if the CPP has real will in solving the deadlock through tomorrow’s bi-party talk,” CNRP deputy public affairs head Kem Monovithya posted on Facebook yesterday.
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG