The political Gordian knot

Prime Minister Hun Sen (right) shakes hands with leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party Sam Rainsy
Prime Minister Hun Sen (right) shakes hands with leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party Sam Rainsy during a meeting at the National Assembly in Phnom Penh in September last year. AFP

The political Gordian knot

Not so long ago, the Cambodian nation sank into an abyss of barbarity. Fortunately, the United Nations along with the international community and surviving Cambodians pulled it out from that abyss and it began an ascent to civilisation.

On July 28, 2013, it succeeded in organising a peaceful general election. Once subjects, Cambodians had become citizens and, shedding much of their fear, publicly exercised their rights and took part in the event.

Sadly, the ascent has been blocked by discord between the two main parties – the Cambodian People’s Party and the Cambodia National Rescue Party – and by the political deadlock over suspected election irregularities.

Prolonged public protests for the change of the CPP government and the reform of the National Election Committee – both believed to be behind the alleged irregularities – and the bloody crackdowns in January on garment worker demonstrations that killed five people also make clear that the Kingdom’s ascent to civilisation has stalled.

Ever since, this nation has been living in a de facto state of emergency, with some fundamental rights being arbitrarily suspended.

Meanwhile, the CPP and the CNRP have continued to try to settle their differences, seeking a compromise over election reform and the allocation of committee chairs in the National Assembly.

The CPP government has seemingly abandoned the idea that the two parties can reach a resolution on election reform on their own and has enlisted the help of Japan.

But local resources required for the task are available. After receiving training and participating directly or indirectly in so many elections since 1993, Cambodians themselves and expatriates working at Cambodia-based election-related organisations, including the NEC itself, have adequate expertise to undertake reform.

They have recognised and understood the shortcomings behind election irregularities across the entire electoral process. They have seen flaws during the registration of voters, the actual voting and the resolution of election disputes. And they have remedies for these problems in the form of recommendations formulated in the 2008 EU election observation mission report, in UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur Suria Subedi’s 2012 report on elections, in the National Democratic Institute’s (NDI) report on voter registration issued before the 2013 election and in reports by Comfrel, Nicfec and other local NGOs before and after last year’s vote.

Had all those recommendations been implemented, there would have been far fewer allegations of irregularities and the CNRP would not feel obliged to reject the election results and boycott the National Assembly.

In a statement a few days after the elections, Subedi commented on the allegations of irregularities, saying: “Had [my] recommendations been implemented in time for the elections, the situation now would have been much better.”

Assistance from Japan will be more appreciated if its experts can more clearly identify more flaws and shortcomings, come up with more effective remedies and design a better election system.

In May, the Japanese came to study the extent of their assistance. However, during Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida’s recent visit, Japan made it clear that its assistance would not be forthcoming until, as The Phnom Penh Post put it on July 1, the two Cambodian parties “sort out their differences and lay out the details of a political agreement”.

At the present stage of talks between the CPP and the CNRP, such “divisions” are centred on how members of the new NEC will be chosen by the National Assembly.

This issue of majority has now become their political Gordian knot. The CPP is adamantly sticking to an absolute majority vote, commonly known as 50 per cent plus one. The CNRP, on the other hand, is pushing for a two-thirds vote but is amenable to any “middle formula”.

If the two parties were to compromise, they should consider adopting the super majority formula used by Khmer Rouge tribunal judges when deciding on the legality of indictments. This tribunal has a Trial Chamber composed of three Cambodian judges and two foreign judges, and a Supreme Court Chamber comprised of four Cambodian judges and three foreign judges. Under this formula, the judges of each chamber decide by a unanimous vote.

If this unanimity cannot be reached, then a decision by the Trial Chamber “shall require the affirmative vote of at least four judges”, and a decision by the Supreme Court Chamber “the affirmative vote of at least five judges”.

Based on this super majority formula and the European Union and Subedi’s recommendations for the appointment of the NEC by a consensus among all political parties represented in the National Assembly, the majority formula for the appointment of the new NEC should be as follows: the National Assembly appoints the NEC by a consensus among all political parties represented. If this is not possible, the appointment is made by a majority vote higher than one party’s representation in the assembly and not less than an absolute majority vote.

This super majority should help the CPP and the CNRP undo their political Gordian knot. From there, they can look to form a legitimate government, seek the tools to empower Cambodians to undertake election reform, bring normalcy to the country and open the way for the nation to restart its ascent to civilisation.

Lao Mong Hay is a political analyst.


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