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Inside the deal deferred

Members of the CPP and CNRP sit across from each other at the Senate in Phnom Penh during negotiations
Members of the CPP and CNRP sit across from each other at the Senate in Phnom Penh during negotiations yesterday. Heng Chivoan

Inside the deal deferred

When the opposition joins the National Assembly, it will take the chairmanships of five of 10 parliamentary commissions and the first vice presidency of the assembly, according to part of the agreement revealed by Cambodia National Rescue Party whip Son Chhay yesterday after a round of negotiations at the Senate.

Although disagreements between the CNRP and the ruling party on reform technicalities continued to block the talks from blossoming into a resolution, details of the parliamentary power-sharing agreement brokered by Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy earlier this year became public.

A new anti-corruption commission will be added to the existing nine commissions to facilitate the equal chairmanships, but the Cambodian People’s Party will still hold the parliamentary presidency (currently held by Heng Samrin) and the second vice presidency – meaning it will still wield a majority (seven to six) on the assembly’s permanent standing committee.

Governance experts and analysts yesterday said the new power-sharing arrangements would equate to little practical change in the amount of power the opposition wields in parliament unless internal assembly rules are also completely overhauled.

Prum Sokha, head of the CPP’s negotiating working group, confirmed yesterday that the agreement on assembly positions still stood.

But other details allegedly hammered out in an April 9 phone call between Hun Sen and Rainsy were left in dispute after a meeting between party officials yesterday.

Following the 90-minute meeting, the parties remained at odds over what proportion of lawmakers should be required to approve members of a new constitutionally mandated National Election Committee.

According to the CPP’s Sokha, requiring that two-thirds of parliament approve the NEC’s members – as the CNRP has requested – would simply lead to more political deadlock.

“Our working group told the [CNRP working group] that this would only lead to a return to what took place before 2006,” he told reporters after the meeting, referring to deadlock that ensued after the 1998 and 2003 elections, when the CPP won the poll but did not have the two-thirds majority required to form a government on its own.

In 2006, Rainsy, then leader of his namesake party, lobbied for a constitutional amendment that would allow a government to be formed with only a 50 per cent plus one majority – a provision that, ironically enough, allowed the CPP to go it alone with only 68 seats after last year’s disputed election.

At his post-meeting press conference yesterday, Prum Sokha handed out copies of a 2006 letter from Rainsy to Hun Sen and former Funcinpec leader Norodom Ranariddh requesting the amendment.

But CNRP working group head Kuoy Bunroeun rejected the deadlock argument yesterday, saying that, on the contrary, public trust in the NEC is what Cambodia needs to avoid its reoccurring post-election woes.

“We want the electoral institution to have real independence, real power and have real ability, especially to help avoid post-election political crises. In previous times, post-election crises have occurred because of lost confidence in electoral institutions,” he said.

Opposition leader Rainsy, meanwhile, argued that the CPP was reneging on what had previously been agreed between him and Hun Sen.

“Compared to what Hun Sen and I agreed in a phone conversation last April, the CPP now backtracks and refuses to specify in the Constitution the previously agreed new rule for selecting future NEC members based on a two-thirds majority or a consensus among all parties represented at the National Assembly,” Rainsy wrote in a Facebook post.

“If this new rule is only stated in an ordinary law whose adoption only requires a 50% + 1 majority, the CPP would be able in the future to change the composition of the NEC as it pleases,” he continued.

But Prum Sokha said the opposition was holding things back, pointing to NEC-related constitutional amendments that had already been drafted by his party and distributed yesterday.

“Prime Minister Hun Sen is one step ahead,” he said.

The working groups are expected to meet again after consulting with party leaders, but no timeline for further negotiations has been announced.

Separately, according to Chhay, who yesterday divulged details of what positions the CNRP would receive when it joins parliament, the opposition had initially asked for the parliamentary presidency but had agreed to forfeit that position when the ruling party agreed to create a 10th commission.

But without a change to the internal rules, the opposition’s new parliamentary prestige “won’t change a thing”, Cambodian Center for Human Rights chairman Ou Virak said.

“If you look at the formula now, the internal rules has to be adopted every single mandate by an absolute majority.… So of course the ruling party will adopt rules that will help the ruling party and undermine the opposition,” he said.

“Nobody has power, only the president of the National Assembly and the permanent committee as a body, which will still be dominated by the CPP.”

What the CNRP should be pushing for, Virak continued, is a law on the organisation and functioning of parliament, which would guarantee the rights of the opposition regardless of who is in power.

A governance expert and consultant who wished to remain anonymous agreed that the new positions would merely amount to symbolic parliamentary power without internal rule changes.

“If the CPP still hold the majority, even though you are a [commission] chairman, it is an honorary position. The voice still belongs to the CPP,” he said.

But the CNRP is pushing for internal rules that would allow the opposition to play a more prominent role and allow the recognition of a “shadow cabinet”, Chhay said.

“This is an ongoing discussion, what had been agreed was [only] power-sharing.”

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