The ruling and opposition parties have added a provision to a soon-to-be passed draft election law that aims to prevent any party winning seats in the National Assembly from subsequently boycotting parliament.
The decision comes after Prime Minister Hun Sen last month called on bipartisan working groups drafting amendments to the current election law to include a rule that would see boycotting parties stripped of their seats.
But the wording of the law, which was finalised on Wednesday, appears to still leave open the possibility of the same kind of boycott the Cambodia National Rescue Party launched in the aftermath of the 2013 poll after claiming the election had been rigged.
The draft law states that parties can be stripped of their seats if they boycott the opening session of the National Assembly presided over by the King, the swearing-in of lawmakers or when the assembly officially declares their validity – but only if the election was “free, fair and just”.
The law says this would be judged according to the constitution – determined by the Constitutional Council – and the election law, which is the domain of the National Election Committee (NEC).
In the event the election is deemed “free, fair and just”, and a party still boycotts parliament, the National Assembly must inform the National Election Committee within 24 hours, the law states. The NEC then has 72 hours to redistribute the party’s seats.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy yesterday defended the provision, saying that if the new NEC law and amended election law are fully implemented in future elections, no parties should have grounds to protest the result.
“In 2013, and before 2013, we had no laws that guaranteed a free and fair election process, therefore we [had the right] to protest. But now we have accepted the election-related laws, so we have [to accept] the results of the election,” he said.
However, Rainsy added that if in the middle of the election process the laws are not being implemented properly, the CNRP would “ring the alarm bells”.
He admitted that the laws had been a “compromise” and therefore contain elements with which his party is not fully satisfied. But he said that, overall, they would allow the public to trust the electoral process.
Some election monitors and observers, however, have slammed the boycott rule as designed to serve the interests of the two political parties according to their expectations of what might happen at the 2018 elections.
Independent analyst Ou Virak said it appeared the CPP believed it was going to win the next election and had thus pushed for the provision to prevent another opposition boycott. The CNRP on the other hand, he said, likely included the caveat that the election must be judged free and fair to give them the option of crying foul and boycotting again if they lose in 2018.
“But if anything, that pretext will only help the CPP” if the CNRP wins, Virak said, given that the Constitutional Council is politically beholden to the government.
In such an event, the CPP could “control the Constitutional Council to make the judgment that the election was not fair”, he said, paving the way for a CPP boycott.
Rainsy argued, however, that the council would not have enough power to delegitimise the election, given that the overhauled NEC will handle the entire process and proclaim the result.
Koul Panha, executive director of election watchdog Comfrel, said he could not see any valid reason why the assembly would give the NEC the power to strip parties of their seats if they boycott parliament.
“When we confiscate seats [of any party], it affects the will of voters,” he said.
CPP working group head Bin Chhin could not be reached for comment yesterday, while Keut Rith, a fellow CPP working group member, would only say that the provision would benefit “everyone”, and not any particular party.
Rainsy also announced yesterday that the two parties had agreed to pass both election-related laws in the National Assembly by the end of this month.
Following their passage, the assembly will aim to select the nine members of an overhauled NEC before Khmer New Year in mid-April, he said.
Under an agreement reached last July, the CPP and CNRP will each nominate four candidates for the committee, with one “consensus” candidate. Rights activist Pung Chhiv Kek, a Cambodian-French-Canadian citizen, was agreed to as the ninth candidate months ago, but the new NEC law prohibits dual nationals from taking up the position.