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A ninth candidate is eyed

Cambodia National Rescue Party president Sam Rainsy addresses supporters at a party congress in Wat Botum Park
Cambodia National Rescue Party president Sam Rainsy addresses supporters at a party congress in Wat Botum Park yesterday. Hong Menea

A ninth candidate is eyed

A candidate to fill the crucial ninth position of a reformed National Election Committee will likely be announced today, roughly 24 hours after an opposition party congress involving members from across the country took place in Phnom Penh.

Opposition sources refrained from revealing the name of the candidate who is the subject of ongoing discussions between the Cambodia National Rescue Party and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party.

But CNRP president Sam Rainsy said it was likely that the candidate, who will hold the balance of power in the bipartisan election body, will be announced following a meeting between the negotiating teams today.

“I think the ninth member will be made public [today],” he said, adding that it was not certain that a final decision would be made at the meeting. Party spokesman Yim Sovann dismissed suggestions that choosing the ninth member would lead to a stalemate in which both sides proposed partisan candidates.

“I am very sure that an agreement will be reached,” he said. “There may be some indication after the meeting.”

Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan declined to comment on the proposals for a ninth NEC member, while Prum Sokha, secretary of state at the Interior Ministry, and National Assembly spokesman Chheang Vun, could not be reached yesterday.

Speaking to thousands of supporters in the capital’s Wat Botum Park yesterday morning, CNRP vice president Kem Sokha said that while Prime Minister Hun Sen had indicated a willingness to come to an agreement over the ninth member, the CNRP wouldn’t take its seats in parliament until a final decision had been made.

“If we cannot find the ninth individual for the NEC by agreement together, the CNRP lawmakers-elect will not take their seats in parliament,” he said.

Hun Sen, Sokha added, had suggested during negotiations last Tuesday that the two parties were more than capable of finding consensus.

As today’s anniversary of the disputed July 2013 national election approached, the opposition on Tuesday agreed to end its 10-month-long parliamentary boycott and “work together” with the ruling CPP.

Sokha added that coming to an accord with the CPP would herald a new phase of pressure on the authorities.

“From now on, the Cambodian People’s Party cannot do whatever it wishes,” he said.

The opposition used yesterday’s congress to gain approval for a seven-point platform, including policy priorities it will pursue once its elected members become lawmakers. Some of these policies resembled the CNRP’s pre-election promises, which included higher salaries for civil servants and the armed forces, state pensions for the elderly and free medical care for the poor.

Government spokesman Siphan, however, said the congress was more of a public relations stunt than an exercise in democratic freedom.

Wearing hats with the Cambodia National Rescue Party logo
Wearing hats with the Cambodia National Rescue Party logo, supporters of the opposition listen to speeches at a party congress yesterday at Wat Botum Park. Pha Lina

“It is part of their campaign for popularity,” he said. “The government has already been working on a number of reforms, and the CNRP now has to work through parliament to achieve what it wants. We work through the system – we don’t try to be popular.”

The expected arrival of the CNRP in the National Assembly prompted some reshuffling of leadership positions within the CPP yesterday.

Senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said that the assembly’s current deputy president, Nguon Nhel, who as part of the deal will relinquish that position to the CNRP, will become second deputy president. The current second deputy and the heads of the four commissions offered to the CNRP will be bumped back down to regular members of parliament. Minister of Information and sometimes-CPP spokesman Khieu Kanharith confirmed the moves yesterday.

At the congress yesterday, the opposition leaders pledged to supporters they would seek justice for the victims of land disputes and take strong measures to weed out graft at the helm of a planned anti-corruption commission in parliament.

Rainsy said the practicalities of establishing the commission were yet to be decided.

“We cannot say how it will operate yet … We have the CPP-aligned Anti-Corruption Unit, but it’s far from effective. We will take the initiative to investigate all ministries, all departments. I have put a lot of hope in this project.”

The party leader will attend an extraordinary session of parliament today to be officially confirmed as an opposition lawmaker, replacing Kuoy Bunroeun, who was elected to a seat in Kampong Cham province and is one of four members chosen by the CNRP to sit on the reformed NEC.

The congress also proved an opportunity for party members to express their mixed feelings about joining a parliament dominated by the CPP following more than 10 months of protest since an election the opposition believes was rigged.

Kem Vuthy, 53, an activist from Siem Reap city, said he did not know “if this decision will be good or not in the long term”.

“We will need to wait and see, but I hope the leaders stay strong and stick to their principles. I don’t know if there are deep divisions in the party. Now more than ever we should be united.”

Other activists said they were not satisfied.

“We need to wait and see the result. I am disappointed about some things [in the agreement],” said Eang Vannath, 31, from Battambang city.

Kuch Vandy, 24, a CNRP activist from Phnom Penh, said the party should have held out for a better deal.

“I think they gave too much away. We should have waited longer and gone back to the street if we must. Now we will have to wait for years before the government changes. A lot can happen before that.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY VONG SOKHENG

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