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In it for the long haul?

Monks pray during a ceremony in Phnom Penh yesterday commemorating the 1997 grenade attack.
Monks pray during a ceremony in Phnom Penh yesterday commemorating the 1997 grenade attack. HENG CHIVOAN

In it for the long haul?

With the opposition continuing to reject the results of Sunday’s ballot and the government standing firm that an international probe won’t happen, some are questioning how long such a standoff can last.

In 2008, similar boycott threats collapsed after the Sam Rainsy Party made an 11th-hour deal with Cambodian People’s Party officials. At the time, opposition party officials said they had backed off in the “interests of the nation”.

This time though, with the race so close and the irregularities so rife, a pushback would make sense, National Democratic Institute resident director Laura Thornton said.

“In our audit, we had a result that was negligible – 46.8 to 46.2 [of the popular vote]. With that kind of margin, that slim victory, you take irregularities seriously.”

Opposition lawmaker Mu Sochua said the party would continue to do just that.

“We cannot move forward without addressing these irregularities,” she said.

And though the government has termed a proposed independent investigation illegal, Sochua said she was certain “the committee we requested will happen”.

“Two months after the election, the new assembly will have to open its first session. It will be resolved by then,” she added.

But what form such a resolution could take is anyone’s guess.

Analyst Kem Ley noted that the government could possibly redistribute seats to minor parties if the opposition continued to reject the election results. However, the law appeared to only allow for that if a third party occupied a seat, he said.

Regardless, he said, it was unlikely it would come to that.

“The opposition always fights the result of the election,” he said. “I’ve learned from the past. They reject the results, then they accept and join the parliament.”

Speaking to reporters yesterday morning, Foreign Affairs Ministry secretary of state Ouch Borith called on the opposition to present proof, saying that if the government saw evidence of their claims, “it would jointly resolve the problem for the interest of the nation”.

Though the National Election Committee remains mum, some government officials have begun to give hints that, should the opposition continue to reject the results once all appeals have been exhausted, they could undermine their position altogether.

“I think that if the CNRP continues to reject the results, they will be a loser because there is law [to decide this issue],” Minister of Information Khieu Kanharith told the Post.

“The question is now whether the CNRP will accept the results or not, we wait for their decision.”

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said Rainsy’s continued refusal to accept the results was nothing new.

“The opposition never respects the outcome of the vote. They always try to hijack the will of the people.… They try to stage a mass demonstration – they always used to do that.”

“The game they want to play is that the National Assembly can’t open for the term because of the [constitutionally mandated] quorum; they try and use that to pressure the CPP and the government, but as we learned from 1998 and 2003, the government still goes on.”

By refusing to sit, he added, the party is likely to frustrate both its supporters, who voted for them to serve, and elected lawmakers who were keen to experience power.

“It’s going to build frustration, and frustration is not a good thing,” warned Siphan.

A handful of analysts echoed that sentiment.

“It will be important for Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha to keep relatively quiet for the time being, and ditto their supporters in the USA,” said Cambodia scholar David Chandler.

While opposition supporters have been pointing to Article 88 of the constitution, which requires that a quorum of 70 per cent of lawmakers be present to make a session valid, such niceties have failed to stop the National Assembly from operating in the past.

In 2011, opposition parliamentarians resigned, trying to spark a constitutional crisis in protest of a draft budget. It passed days later with only 86 lawmakers present, less than needed according to the quorum figures and in apparent contravention of Article 76 (which demands that 120 members make up the National Assembly).

CNRP youth welcome opposition leader Sam Rainsy back to Cambodia upon his return from self-exile during a political rally in Phnom Penh earlier this month
CNRP youth welcome opposition leader Sam Rainsy back to Cambodia upon his return from self-exile during a political rally in Phnom Penh earlier this month. VIREAK MAI

Similarly, just two months ago, the National Assembly rammed through a Khmer Rouge crimes denial law after firing all 28 opposition lawmakers – seemingly breaking Article 76 again.

“The laws have been interpreted in so many different ways,” pointed out NDI’s Thornton. “Honestly, I’m not sure how it will play out.”

If no solution is brokered, and the government chooses to follow the letter of the law, they could try to simply break up the opposition, picking off as many lawmakers as are needed for a quorum.

“The CPP will try their best to persuade the CNRP to join the coalition to weaken the opposition for the next election,” said Ley.

Though the CNRP’s Sochua insisted the party was wholly unified, government spokesman Siphan pointed out that there are many newly elected lawmakers who likely want to get on with their jobs.

“There’s an impact, they don’t get salary and they’ve invested so much time and money in the campaign.… Who is willing to compromise? Who will approach the CPP?”

Meanwhile, with each passing day, the initial anger at the results appears to be dying down.

At an event yesterday initially rumoured to be a large-scale youth rally, which instead appeared to be a hastily planned memorial to victims of the 1997 grenade attack, staunch CNRP supporters appeared loath to speak of protests.

“We’ve come to pay respect to the memory, not to protest the election,” To Prik, 72, said.

“Everything depends on my leader. If he tells people to keep quiet, we keep quiet.… [But] we feel very disappointed, and very sorry [with the election results],” Pha Vong Dara, 47, said.

Today, the CNRP is set to release its own election figures. But whether such revelations can give momentum to a boycott in light of such major roadblocks, remains to be seen.

Asked how long the party planned to reject the results, Rainsy offered a cryptic answer to the Post.

“We will know very soon,” he said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG AND KEVIN PONNIAH

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