Cambodia has a new - if not undisputed - First Prime Minister. Christine Chaumeau
went along to witness the occasion at the National Assembly Aug 6.
"PROM, Prom, Prom, (agree, agree, agree)," the man counting the ballots
read. The Member of Parliament tallied the ballots on a white board. A voice in the
National Assembly said "menprom" and the MP hesitated, surprised by this
unexpected vote. But he dutifully marked a hatch in the 'disagree' column.
And they kept on counting for 40 minutes. As the tallies "against" or "abstain"
grew, Ung Huot's relaxed face tensed. After the 80 votes needed for a two-thirds
majority appeared in the "agree" column, the Parliament broke into applause.
Ung Huot was relieved and broke into a broad smile. He had been elected to replace
First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh.
A few minutes later, the board showed 87 votes agreeing to replace Ranariddh with
Ung Huot, four disagreeing, six abstentions and three invalid votes.
After some hesitation, a problem appeared. There were only 99 deputies sitting in
the National Assembly, but adding all the tallies would have meant 100 voted.
So the secretary had to count again and correct the figures. In fact, only 86 had
voted for Ung Huot's election. Then everyone in the assembly laughed at the mistake.
At the beginning of the session, before the vote, letters of advice were read to
the MPs. Council of Ministers co-minister Sok An (CPP) read a letter from Hun Sen
saying that Ung Huot was a good candidate to be First Prime Minister. Assembly president
Loy Sim Chheang read letters from Toan Chhay and Nady Tan supporting Ung Huot in
the name of the Funcinpec party. He did not read the letter sent by his colleague
Son Sou-bert, vice president, contesting the legality of the election.
Once sure of his election, Ung Huot stood up, walked down the stairs and arrived
at Hun Sen's chair. The two new partners shook hands. Then Ung Huot rose to the podium
and delivered a speech. In front of him were 20 vacant seats, 14 of which were those
of MPs who fled the country after the July 5-6 coup.
Ung Huot did not mention those vacant seats, but tried to stress the continuity of
the government in his election. He endorsed the achievements of the Royal Government
since 1993. He repeated several times that he was ready to work with Hun Sen. His
duty, he said, "could be fulfilled with success when filled with the spirits
of consultation, coordination and close cooperation with Samdech the Second Prime
Minister and the CPP which are an important partner in the political life of Cambodia."
The new First Prime Minister said he wanted "to make Cambodia a genuine State
governed by the rule of law."
But in the corridors of the Assembly some underlined that Article 100 of the Constitution
- which requires the approval of the King - had not been followed for this election.
After the vote, on his way out, Hun Sen said that the day signaled the end of a month
of political crisis in Cambodia. "Now we must stop suspecting Hun Sen [as being
responsible for a coup d'état], because we [have] selected, by a democratic
election, the new First Prime Minister. This is not Hun Sen taking power."
On the lifting of Ranariddh's immunity, he said: "Today it was stated that there
is no difference between the people and the Royal family. I want Cambodia to be a
state of law not just for the Royal family, the monarchy, but for people and officials.
If they do wrong they must be treated the same by the law."
Ung Huot walked out of the Assembly. His new bodyguards had already learned their
duties on how to protect the First Prime Minister from reporters. He only had time
to say: "I am very happy."