With the fate of the CNRP still in the Supreme Court’s hands, the National Assembly yesterday paved the way for all of the main opposition party’s seats to be handed over to a smattering of smaller parties and, at the local level, to the ruling CPP.
The attending Cambodian People’s Party lawmakers voted unanimously to approve amendments to four separate election laws pertaining to the National Assembly, Senate and commune and district councils.
One set of amendments allows for the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s seats in parliament to be redistributed among minor parties, excluding the CPP – a move the government has pointed to as evidence of the survival of “multiparty democracy”.
At the commune and district level positions, however, the ruling party would occupy any vacated seats in localities where it received the next highest number of votes, giving the CPP virtually total control of local and grassroots politics.
The changes to the National Assembly law will have the same effect in the Senate, though the opposition in that chamber will not be affected as the CNRP technically holds no seats there.
Pen Panha, CPP lawmaker and head of the Commission on Legislation and Justice, said the draft amendments to the Law on Elections of Members of the National Assembly (Lemna) “comply with the current political context and developments in the Kingdom of Cambodia”.
He added that the revisions will “guarantee political stability and sustainability”.
The Supreme Court is currently considering whether or not to dissolve the CNRP – the country’s main opposition party and the only legitimate competitor to the CPP – following a complaint from the Ministry of Interior calling for its dissolution in light of the arrest of party leader Kem Sokha on widely decried “treason” charges.
The articles were approved unanimously by 67 of the CPP’s attending lawmakers, with parliamentarian Hun Many absent because he is abroad. All of the opposition’s 55 lawmakers, more than half of whom have fled the country, boycotted the session.
“The request to amend the four laws has no intention to destroy a person or political party,” Cheam Yeap, a senior CPP lawmaker, maintained yesterday.
Appearing to contradict himself almost immediately, Yeap added that the law was passed “especially for the treasonous acts of the president of the CNRP, Kem Sokha, who committed treason in a red-handed crime”, or in flagrante delicto offence.
Constitutionally, lawmakers can only be arrested in the commission of a flagrant crime, though Sokha’s charges stem from comments made in a 2013 video in which he describes receiving guidance from the United States to develop a political platform. The government has justified his arrest and the flouting of his immunity by citing the fact that the video had remained online until last month.
Yoeurng Sotheara, a legal analyst at election watchdog Comfrel, called the amendments “unconstitutional” as they could effectively negate the result of popular elections.
“The constitution says the National Assembly should represent the people . . . It’s no longer representative if the seats of the opposition party which supporters voted for . . . are distributed to parties they don’t support,” he said.
The CNRP won just over 44 percent of the popular vote in the 2013 national election.
Under the proposed redistribution, it would be replaced by five parties that won less than 7 percent combined, with the bulk of the seats going to Funcinpec – the same party that filed a complaint to the Ministry of Interior requesting it dissolve the CNRP.
“The government doesn’t have the authority to redistribute the will of the people,” Sotheara added.
After weeks of refusing to comment on whether it would accept the CNRP’s vacated seats, Funcinpec finally broke its silence yesterday, with spokesman Nheb Bun Chin admitting the royalist party would “probably take” the 41 National Assembly seats awarded to them under the amendment’s redistribution formula.
“I met with my president, his Royal Highness Prince [Norodom] Ranariddh, this morning. We’ve been talking about that,” he said.
“If you were sitting at home and someone comes and offers you $1 million, would you take it?” Bun Chin asked rhetorically, adding that Funcinpec would only be following the law.
“If we take it, we show the nation that we will serve them in a democratic way,” he added.
Ear Sophal, associate professor of diplomacy and world affairs at Occidental College in Los Angeles, said the passage of the amendments was an indicator that “democracy in Cambodia is officially dead”.
“The 2017 Commune Election was for naught,” the policy analyst said via email yesterday.
He added yesterday’s vote showed the opposition’s end is near, and that a potential alternative, the Candlelight Party – composed of the remnants of the Sam Rainsy Party, which merged with the Human Rights Party to form the CNRP – would only be allowed to exist as long as it does not prove to be a threat to the ruling party.
“The Candlelight Party was spared from being snuffed out, for now, but I wouldn’t hold my breath until July 2018,” he wrote, referring to the scheduled date of the national elections.
Former CNRP President Sam Rainsy – who is in exile facing multiple convictions and was forced to resign as party head due to previous rounds of amendments to the Law on Political Parties – called the newest legal manoeuvres “laughable”.
“This ridiculous redistribution of the CNRP’s 55 National Assembly seats to smaller parties that were unable to collect enough popular votes to obtain even a single seat at the 2013 national election is the most laughable anti-democratic farce that has ever been seen,” he wrote in an email yesterday.
Meanwhile, Defence Minister Tea Banh, echoing Prime Minister Hun Sen’s promise that the CNRP’s dissolution will come “soon”, said yesterday the military was prepared to face any disgruntled citizens.
“The army is ready to fight any person who wants to overthrow the legitimate government,” Banh pledged yesterday.