Controversial amendments to Cambodia’s Political Law are set to sail through the National Assembly today after the opposition party announced yesterday it will boycott the vote.
The news comes in the wake of a joint statement from the Electoral Reform Alliance and a number of NGOs who on Friday “vehemently request[ed] that the amendment to the law on political parties not be adopted, especially by the ruling party acting alone at a time of upcoming elections”.
The reforms, which threaten to dissolve political parties led by people with criminal convictions, prompted the resignation of long-time opposition leader Sam Rainsy, who was dogged by a string of defamation cases brought against him by government officials.
After a meeting at the Cambodia National Rescue Party headquarters yesterday, chief whip Son Chhay said the party would refuse to attend the special plenary session of the National Assembly as the law was hastily crafted, specifically targeted his party and was against the will of the people.
“This law, if it is enforced, [will be] contrary to the principles of a free, multi-party democracy,” he said, comments that could be construed as an ironic allusion to an amendment that reads: “All political parties shall not … conduct sabotage to counter liberal, multi-party democracy”.
“When the meeting of parliament is to decide to cause serious concern or harm to the national people and democracy, we cannot go along with it,” Chhay added, stressing that the CNRP was boycotting only this particular vote, not parliament in general.
Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sok Eysan yesterday slammed the opposition for its non-attendance, but said there would be no obstacle for the amendments to be passed.
“So the process [will go] smoothly, and it is a decision of the whole National Assembly, not a decision of only the Cambodian People’s Party,” he said, despite the fact that no one but CPP parliamentarians will be voting. He added that the reforms applied to all political parties, not only the CNRP.
“The [CNRP] that does not attend [parliament] is like a student that skips school without studying.”
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), said the law would be incomplete if the opposition boycotted.
However, political analyst Ou Virak, of the Future Forum think tank, said the CNRP should either boycott parliament completely, or attend and vote “no” to make a stand and have their dissent on record.
The newly revamped law, he added, would likely be “a tool of last resort” for the CPP.
“I don’t think they’ll use it …the chances of dissolving [the CNRP] are pretty slim,” he said, though he did say it might be used to push a handful of high-profile leaders out.
His key concerns within the law were the powers given to the Ministry of Interior to halt the activities of political parties, and that the Supreme Court – which lacks judicial independence and the confidence of the Cambodian people – had the final and decisive say in dissolution.
“It can proceed very rapidly, with no grace period and no process for appeal,” he said.
He also took issue with the “vague terms”, such as threats to “national unity”, as they were open to political interpretation.
However, Dr Lee Morgenbesser, a researcher on authoritarian regimes in Southeast Asia at Australia’s Griffith University, said the CPP wouldn’t hesitate to disband their opponents.
“The fact the CPP is pursuing this amendment with such speed indicates just how likely it is that the CNRP will dissolved,” he said via email.
“The need to maintain the facade of democracy is no longer a strategic imperative for Hun Sen’s government. This is due to the fact that China’s large investment in Cambodia is not dependent on the maintenance of elections and the Trump administration’s utter lack of a foreign policy means there are few consequences for dissolving the CNRP.”
“This will mark the start of Cambodia’s transition from competitive authoritarianism towards hegemonic authoritarianism, which will put it alongside Laos and Vietnam.”
The amendments, if passed, will go to the Senate, the Constitutional Council and the King before coming into effect.