FOR an opposition that faces a hostile electoral climate, desperate times called
for desperate measures.
Faced with repeated indications the CPP will influence the election in its favor,
Funcinpec, the Sam Rainsy Party and the Son Sann Party - using their pre-coup banner
of the National United Front instead of their self-exiled moniker, the Union of Cambodian
Democrats - began a National Assembly boycott on April 30.
With the boycott still holding on May 5, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen spoke directly
to Prince Norodom Ranariddh for the first time since the Prince was ousted from power
last July. Their telephone conversation ended the boycott with a compromise that
appears to be a victory for the opposition -if the CPP sticks to its word.
The NUF had more than enough supporters to deny quorum. Eighty-four members must
be present for the 120-seat Assembly to open.
No Assembly meant no amendment to the election law. Under the law, registration should
have begun on April 27, but EU-provided registration kits did not arrive in Phnom
Penh until early May. The Assembly had to amend the law to change the date to May
The Assembly's selection of three members of the Constitutional Council also hung
in the balance of the boycott.
The opposition demanded that:
ï ballot counting be moved from village to provincial level;
ï the Constitutional Council be politically balanced;
ï a parliamentary inquiry begin into the membership of the controversial National
Election Commission membership.
Also at stake was a possible delay to the July 26 polling date. Election technicians
were still positive before the boycott that the polls could be held on time, despite
delays in preparations, yet they warned that they would not know for sure until the
end of May when registration should be well underway.
NUF faithful privately explained that the crucial demand was for the change in ballot
There were not enough independent observers to monitor vote counting in 11,500 polling
stations - only the CPP has a party network that extensive; but more importantly
for the opposition, post-election retribution could be more easily visited on villages
that did not vote for the eventual winner.
The opposition argued that voters would realize ballot secrecy was not guaranteed
and would vote for the strongest party, the CPP, instead of with their conscience.
CPP spokesman Khieu Kan-harith argued that moving the ballot boxes to provincial
capitals would extend balloting to two days and make the possibility of ballot box
tampering more likely. "For us, because of all the manipulation during the 
UN election, we only want one day for polling... When you move the box, it will take
two days instead of one. Someone could change the results overnight."
Once the boycott held, Hun Sen made a rare pair of appearances at the Assembly to
rally CPP-loyal parliamentarians and pressure the opposition. "Why are a few
people blocking a process that concerns 10 million?" Hun Sen asked May 4. "Do
they want to hold the election or delay it?"
The breakthrough call from Hun Sen to Ranariddh came after only 78 parliamentarians
arrived at the Assembly on May 5. After 10 minutes' phone chat, the Prince sent six
Funcinpec MPs to the Assembly and the session opened.
The deal was that the Assembly would vote for the ballot counting to be moved to
the commune level, but only after the registration date was amended. The Assembly
would also chose its three Constitutional Council members.
"I am so happy. I have never been so happy in my life," Assembly Secretary-General
Than Sina said. "We had a session at 12 o'clock... We passed one amendment for
a new calendar for voter registration."
The remaining two parts of the deal are scheduled to be decided May 8, following
Hun Sen's return from Thailand where he will meet with Thai Prime Minister Chuan
Leekpai to discuss territorial agreements, an extradition treaty and the repatriation
of the more than 80,000 Cambodian refugees on Thai territory.
Former Funcinpec Assembly member Om Radsady, now a member of Sangkum Thmei, described
the day's events as "a bit peculiar", and remained somewhat skeptical about
the vote count change, noting that it had yet to be formalized by an Assembly vote.
Khieu Kanharith declined to comment on the agreement in detail, saying he hadn't
been briefed directly by Hun Sen.
An election technician said the ballot counting change would not be a hindrance on
election preparations. "This same proposal was forwarded [by some election organizers]
two or three months ago," the technician said. "It will quite guarantee
the security of the vote."