Lawmakers from the ruling and opposition parties yesterday passed two controversial election-related laws without any debate at the National Assembly.
Opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party lawmakers voted with the government to pass an amended election law and a new law governing the National Election Committee, despite the last-ditch efforts of election reform groups to have controversial provisions scrapped.
More than a dozen CNRP lawmakers, including deputy leader Kem Sokha, who is in the United States, did not attend the session. At least six CPP lawmakers were also missing, though it is common for not all 123 representatives to attend parliament.
The NEC law was passed unanimously by all 103 lawmakers present in the morning session and the election law was passed by 101 lawmakers in the afternoon session after two deputies left the assembly during the lunch break.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy praised the parties' election reform working groups for drafting the laws in a "spirit of understanding" and compromise.
"I hope the parliament and all Khmer citizens really recognise the achievements of the working groups," he told reporters.
Rainsy added that the laws did not have to be debated at the assembly because the parties’ had finalised the wording before the session.
The laws were drafted by working groups of the ruling CPP and CNRP over several months with little public consultation following a political deal struck last July.
Their passage – which both parties insist will guarantee a free and fair poll, even though independent monitors say otherwise – marks a symbolic endpoint of the CNRP’s campaign to change the electoral system following the disputed 2013 national election.
When asked why controversial articles were not removed as a coalition of NGOs known as the Electoral Reform Alliance had requested, Rainsy stressed that he too was not “100 per cent satisfied” with the laws but said his party had to make concessions. Prime Minister Hun Sen did not talk to reporters, but Deputy Prime Minister and CPP working group head Bin Chhin said the laws would be essential in ensuring upcoming elections are organised with “effectiveness and transparency”.
In the 20 months since the July 2013 poll, the CNRP’s strategy to bolster Cambodian democracy has evolved from boycotting parliament and holding mass street protests calling for Hun Sen to step down to a shaky current working partnership with the ruling CPP.
But despite a much-touted “culture of dialogue” between the two parties, Hun Sen has recently launched vitriolic public attacks against the opposition, leading to accusations that the CNRP is being too soft in response.
On Wednesday, Hun Sen called for the courts to take action against deputy CNRP leader Kem Sokha for allegedly “confessing” during a speech in California last week that he had tried to topple the government after the 2013 election.
Yesterday during a coffee break, Hun Sen and Rainsy met privately to talk about the continued detention of five opposition members in connection with a protest last July.
Rainsy declined to comment on the talks but said he still backed the culture of dialogue between the two parties and hoped political problems could be “resolved properly and on time”.
“Dialogue means respecting each other and resolving [issues] by peaceful means. This is a principle we must abide by firmly. Although there may be a tense situation, we must keep this spirit and the culture of dialogue,” he said.
Independent analyst Ou Virak said yesterday that while Hun Sen had been confounded by the mass movement against him after the election, he now appeared firmly back in the driver’s seat.
“He has got his mojo back, his confidence back, and he has got the opposition where he wants them to be,” he said.
The CNRP, Virak continued, have been caught out by Hun Sen’s strategy since they pledged to work with the CPP, and are thus remaining silent.
“They have no response to any of these things. They don’t know whether to talk or fight,” he said.
The situation, Virak added, was made worse by the fact that the new election law drafted by the two parties was actually worse than the old one.
Election reform groups had balked at provisions that will tightly restrict NGO activities at election time and levy harsh fines on groups deemed to have “insulted” parties or politicians.
But Son Soubert, a veteran political observer and royal adviser, said the fact that the opposition and ruling parties continue to be engaged in dialogue, despite Hun Sen’s occasional outbursts, was a sign of the Kingdom’s improving political maturity.
He said that the CNRP appear be taking a pragmatic approach to achieving incremental change.
“When you fight with a big political party like the CPP, you cannot get everything at once,” he said.
Soubert added that while he understood the frustrations of opposition supporters with the depth of reforms the CNRP had been able to achieve, he was not convinced that a return to street demonstrations would lead to better democratic progress.
“When you want some progress, you have to persuade your adversary to see the interests of the people and the high interests of the country … [it cannot be] just like before, when [they were only] confronting each other.”