Last month, I was again hopeful as leaders of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party and ruling Cambodian People’s Party announced their desire to end the 10-month political deadlock. Subsequently, the working group that has met periodically to discuss solutions to the stalemate convened on June 12. As a sceptic, I thought this might just be another round of choreography in a circle dance, even as I reminded myself that eventually any dancer must take a seat.
The talks failed as the CPP wants members of the National Election Commission to be selected by an absolute majority of members in the National Assembly, while the CNRP insists upon a two-thirds majority. Each side blames the other for the failure of the working group to settle these differences. Behind this lies a positive occurrence ignored by many.
The Phnom Penh Post reported that, according to CNRP whip Son Chhay, a “parliamentary power-sharing” agreement has been reached. The CNRP agreed to accept the first vice presidency of the National Assembly and chairmanships of five of 10 parliamentary commissions, and there are “ongoing” discussions to reform the National Assembly’s internal rules to enable the opposition to function effectively. One is reminded of CNRP lawmaker-elect Mu Sochua’s statement on her website regarding Sam Rainsy’s sacrifice to “dance with the devil” for the Khmer nation’s sake.
On June 20, CNRP deputy president Kem Sokha told visiting UN special rights envoy Surya Subedi that the party would not join the National Assembly until the NEC was reformed, in order to avoid being “ignored” by the ruling party. The dance goes on.
While I see in the “power-sharing” deal an encouraging sign of the CNRP’s political pragmatism, I wonder if this apparent solution isn’t too little, too late. The longer CNRP seats in the National Assembly remain vacant, the more irrelevant the institution (and the CNRP) become. For Premier Hun Sen, seat vacancies don’t matter anymore. He and his government will continue their work. Significantly, though international actors are not happy with a government in which half the seats in parliament are empty, they continue to do business with the premier and the government.
Hun Sen’s days are limited, yet…
Hun Sen successfully orchestrates executive, legislative and judicial powers. The premier has long demonstrated cunning and an instinct for survival, aware that after 30 years in power his days of dominance are waning. He manipulates election results and comes down hard on the thousands who have engaged in protests, limiting their access to conspicuous venues and inserting operatives to keep book on participants.
Hun Sen likely suspects that he would not win a free and fair election. Even supporters of the regime acknowledge that 35 years of CPP governance is enough. The climate of hunger, ignorance and fear – khliean, khlao, khlach – must be dislodged. Hun Sen is not blind to the writing on the wall. As Khmer is a culture of face, he cannot allow himself to be hauled out of office by an opposition that has many flaws. Yet he is likely to be defeated in 2018 if the CNRP can present itself as a credible alternative.
However, the CNRP, particularly deputy leader Kem Sokha, diminish the party’s credibility and foment national discord when they make unsubstantiated allegations, such as that Vietnam orchestrated the Koh Pich bridge stampede in a plot to “eliminate the Khmer race, tradition and culture”. The disaster, during Cambodia’s annual Water Festival in November 2010, killed 353 people. In an earlier demonstration of disregard for facts, Sokha told the Diplomat that Cambodian politicians must tell their constituents what they want to hear.
While there are internal divisions in both parties, CNRP supporters are notorious for slandering leaders and members of the ruling party whom they accuse of being servants of the Vietnamese. True democracy welcomes all perspectives, as pluralism is necessary for the development and health of a democracy. Alas, self-proclaimed CNRP supporters regularly engage publicly in backbiting. The fusion of the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party, led by Sokha, to form the CNRP has brought enormous strength to the opposition. While Rainsy and Sokha have no choice but to remain together, the followers of each side have not moved beyond their original allegiances to the individual leaders.
Upper hand, underhand
In a speech on June 10, Hun Sen announced that CPP members of the National Assembly would act to make the National Election Commission a formal body enshrined in the constitution, as the CNRP had demanded.
Furthermore, he said, the CNRP shall get its own television station.
Having thus extended the carrot, Hun Sen brought forth the stick. He announced that the CPP government would continue to function even without elected CNRP lawmakers in the National Assembly; CNRP members who continue to boycott the assembly, who “continue to provoke problems”, will be arrested. The CNRP’s demand for a new election in 2016 will not be granted. Rather, the election will occur five months earlier than scheduled – in February 2018.
Additionally, as reported by the Associated Press, Hun Sen asserted: “In case I had a massive stroke as was reported, you please should pack up your things and flee . . . The ability to command all armed forces belongs to only one person.”
But it is not for Hun Sen to decide how much longer he will remain in power. No government can remain in office without the support of the people. Ultimately, the CPP will not be able to function if popular support continues to erode. The day the people approve of an opposition party as a credible alternative to the status quo, they will energise a “Khmer Spring” that neither Hun Sen nor his armed forces can stop. Hun Sen’s authority will be usurped when the opposition convinces voters that it is prepared to put a functional, inclusive government in place. Think about it.
This article was edited for space.
Dr Gaffar Peang-Meth is retired from the University of Guam, where he taught political science for 13 years.