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One year in the making

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy (left) and Prime Minister Hun Sen shake hands in front of the Senate
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy (left) and Prime Minister Hun Sen shake hands in front of the Senate, where a meeting to break the nation’s political deadlock took place yesterday. Heng Chivoan

One year in the making

The deadlock is over. Nearly a year after the disputed July 2013 national election, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party yesterday agreed to end its 10-month-long parliamentary boycott and “work together” with the ruling Cambodian People’s Party in the National Assembly.

In return, the blighted National Election Committee – which the CNRP has decried as biased and a key reason for the irregularities it says compromised the election – will be overhauled and made a new constitutionally mandated institution with representatives of both parties as members.

The CNRP will also gain a suite of top positions in the 123-seat assembly when it officially takes its 55 seats. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy said his party’s lawmakers-elect would be sworn in early next week, possibly on Monday – the anniversary of the election.

Prime Minister Hun Sen and Rainsy emerged from a room at the Senate at about 2pm yesterday after a five-hour meeting. Smiling together, they shook hands for the cameras, sending a clear message that a tumultuous year of street protests, threats, on-again off-again talks and occasional violence had ended through negotiations.

“Both parties have agreed to work together at parliamentary institutions in order to find solutions to the nation’s issues, based on principles of democracy and rule of law,” a joint agreement says.

The new talks were called against a backdrop of threats towards the opposition following a violent protest last week and the arrest of eight of its members. All were released on bail just hours after the agreement was inked yesterday.

Hun Sen declined to answer questions before leaving the Senate, simply saying talks had been “successful”.

In response to questions as to whether he was happy with the deal, Rainsy told reporters the CNRP “had no choice”.

“A very appropriate choice is the end of the political crisis and a tense situation,” he said.

Later, he told the Post that his party, which led massive post-election street protests calling for Hun Sen to step down and an independent investigation into the election, had “mostly” got what it wanted.

“What was the most important is a new electoral commission, where no party can make whatever it wants. So it’s now balanced. It’s more trustworthy, and we can be more confident that the next election will better reflect the will of the people,” he said.

Supporters who weren’t happy about the compromises should “wait and see all the details”, Rainsy added.

“We have to wait until it settles down. And when it settles and when people can assess what each sentence and each word means – including the missing words and sentences that will be published later – they can understand that this [presents] a lot of opportunity, and it depends on the way we work to take advantage of what we have obtained.”

His deputy, Kem Sokha, who Hun Sen has painted as a hardliner, could not be reached.

The new election committee will have four of its nine members drawn from the CPP, four from the CNRP and one member requiring the consensus of both parties, though how this will work was not specified.

The final candidates will need to only be approved by a 50-per-cent-plus-one majority of the assembly, a compromise made by the CNRP, which previously demanded two-thirds approval.

“Four will be from the ruling party, four have to be selected from the other party sitting in the National Assembly . . . The other one has to be selected based on agreement between the two parties,” the statement says, adding that if new NEC members can’t be agreed on, the current NEC will “continue its work”.

The next election date has yet to be set, though the basis for yesterday’s talks was an “in-principle” agreement made between Hun Sen and Rainsy in April that included a February 2018 National Assembly election – just five months earlier than scheduled.

Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures to journalists after his meeting with the CNRP yesterday at the Senate in Phnom Penh
Prime Minister Hun Sen gestures to journalists after his meeting with the CNRP yesterday at the Senate in Phnom Penh. Heng Chivoan

The dates will be decided after reforms – among them a new voter list and registry – are completed.

As part of the deal, the CNRP will also gain the first deputy presidency of the National Assembly, in addition to five of 10 commission chairmanships. However, the CPP will still wield a majority on the parliamentary standing committee through its presidency and second deputy presidency positions.

“What the CNRP has been concerned about – checks and balances – is now what it has got. Because the power [in parliament] will be equal,” Prum Sokha, a secretary of state at the Interior Ministry and a CPP negotiator, said at a press conference yesterday.

Rainsy was not allowed to run in last year’s election, though he is able to swap in for any of his party’s lawmakers and take the first deputy presidency position in parliament. But yesterday, he said he was “not thinking about it”.

In terms of commissions, according to the agreement, the CPP will head finance, banking and audits; home affairs and national defence; foreign affairs, international cooperation and information; legislation; and public works, transport, telecommunications, industry and commerce.

The CNRP will chair human rights and complaints; economy, planning, investment, agriculture, rural development and water resources; education, religious affairs, culture and tourism; public health, social work, labour and women’s affairs; and the new investigation and anti-corruption commission.

Internal rules of parliament will also be changed to empower the opposition, though no further details have been released.

Cambodian Center for Human Rights chairman Ou Virak said that given the vagueness of the agreement in several key areas, “there will be a lot of wrangling in the future”.

“I expect a lot of problems from the NEC, [especially regarding] the one person who has to be selected by the other parties.”

He added that the deal was only “balanced” in terms of the NEC memberships.

“Membership alone is not the whole story for election reform. If you look at the election problems, one is the temporary election IDs – more than half a million issued – which has barely anything to do with the NEC . . . The devil will be in the details, and they will continue to fight over the devil.”

Laura Thornton, the resident director at the National Democratic Institute, which monitors elections and has suggested key reforms, said the agreement was “very disappointing”.

“We’ve stood firmly behind certain key positions that are necessary in order to improve the credibility of elections in Cambodia, and I don’t see those reflected in the statement. I can only be hopeful they are coming later,” she said.

While there was no “one size fits all” formula for election bodies like the NEC, Thornton continued, NDI “had hoped for some public involvement or greater transparency or openness about how members of this body are selected”.

A two-thirds formula to approve NEC members would also be preferable, she said.

Other reforms that need to be seen include taking the voter registration process away from elected commune councils and fundamentally reforming the NEC institutionally, aside from just its members, Thornton added.

In response, Rainsy assured observers that “there are many points not written in the agreement” that will be further specified.

Koul Panha, executive director at election watchdog Comfrel, said that while questions remained about more detailed reforms, the appointment of NEC members from political parties that win seats would “create confidence” in the electoral system.

“This is the start and not the end of the reform. There is still a long way to go.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY CHEANG SOKHA

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