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PM’s legal reasoning questioned

Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks to villagers in Kandal province’s Khsach Kandal district
Prime Minister Hun Sen speaks to villagers in Kandal province’s Khsach Kandal district. STRINGER

PM’s legal reasoning questioned

Two days after Prime Minister Hun Sen warned that an opposition boycott of Parliament would result in his Cambodian People’s Party gobbling up all 123 seats in the National Assembly, analysts said yesterday that the CPP lacks the legal grounds and the political legitimacy to rule as a one-party government.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party also dismissed the prime minister’s claims, saying any attempt at seizing the opposition’s seats – a figure the government puts at 55 – would be “illegal”.

In a speech in Kandal province on Friday, Hun Sen said “the numbers don’t matter” in regard to the CPP needing a quorum to govern.

He added that the ruling party would form a one-party government – boosted by the opposition’s seats – if CNRP legislators declined the King’s invitation to join the opening of Parliament, something that must happen within 60 days of the election.

“The validity of immunity will only occur at the time of swearing in. If you don’t participate ... you will be going against the King,” Hun Sen said.

The premier added that the redistribution of the CNRP’s seats to the CPP, the only other party represented in the assembly, would be carried out by the National Election Committee in accordance with the law.

But Sok Sam Oeun, Cambodia Defenders Project executive director, said yesterday that the opposition can only lose its seats if it explicitly abandons them or commits wrongdoing to the extent that the NEC withdraws the candidacy of the party.

“[Boycotting parliament] does not mean abandoning their seats,” he said. “If they declare, ‘I do not want these seats anymore,’ [then] that’s abandoning their seats.”

This was made clear enough in the law, he added.

“Maybe [Hun Sen’s] trying to interpret the law narrowly.”

After the prime minister’s comments on Friday, Sam Oeun stated that a quorum of 120 out of 123 lawmakers was needed to launch a new National Assembly.

A 2006 amendment to the constitution, he continued, allowed for a new government with 63 lawmakers present – something Hun Sen had referred to – but it had to begin with 120 or more approving the start of a new parliament.

Hun Sen delivered his speech a day after he told the newly appointed Chinese ambassador, Bu Jianguo, that “the CNRP would not be able to prevent the first convening of the National Assembly or the formation of the government”, according to his spokesman, Eang Sophalleth.

The NEC is yet to release official election results, but the ruling party has claimed victory, with 68 seats to 55 – a figure backed up by official preliminary figures.

The opposition has claimed victory itself and called for a joint investigation into election irregularities.

As discussions about such an investigation continued yesterday, CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said nothing in the law stated that the opposition’s seats could be seized and given straight to its opponent.

“Unless we abandon the seats, no one can take them from us,” he said. “If someone takes our seats away, that’s illegal.”

Illegal or not, analysts have noted that the election law and the constitution have been blatantly ignored, slightly breached and even altered before.

In this case, independent analyst Kem Ley predicted, the government would be too smart to follow through on its threats and it was unlikely the ruling party would end up with 123 seats in its possession.

“I think this is just their voice – even if they can, they are clever enough not to do that,” he said.

“They cannot – it goes against the constitution’s ideas of [liberal democracy].”

Koul Panha, executive director of election watchdog Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), said he considered the issue more one of political legitimacy rather than each major party’s interpretation of the law.

“They should look more at the national interest. Otherwise they will keep this conflict,” he said.

“I think they should look at political legitimacy here.... You have the CPP declaring they will get all the opposition seats and [occupy] all 123,” he said. “But both sides need to bargain.... There needs to be a lot of reform.”

Sovann, from the CNRP, agreed that the will of the people should absolutely dictate what happens from this point on.

“Ask the people whether they agree [with the CPP holding 123 seats],” he said. “The best case is a proper investigation. NEC is part of the problem and we invite the UN and civil society to join.”

At the last election, threats of a boycott remained just that after the Sam Rainsy Party – one of the opposition parties that later merged to form the CNRP – struck a deal with the CPP in the “interests of the nation”.

Analysts and monitors, such as National Democratic Institute resident director Laura Thornton, have said that with the result so close, stronger resistance from the CNRP would make sense, while Sovann has said the opposition is not interested in discussing power sharing with the CPP.

A boycott of the National Assembly, however, is not something the CNRP is focusing on just yet, he added.

“We will wait and see. I do not want to say ‘if’.”

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY REUTERS

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