As the deal with the opposition that ended the post-election deadlock earlier this year looks increasingly shaky, a ruling party negotiator gives an insider’s view
On July 22, the ruling and opposition parties agreed to create a new National Election Committee made up of four members selected by each party and one “consensus” candidate”.
But negotiations on a new NEC law to regulate this institution have stalled in recent weeks, with observers accusing the Cambodian People’s Party of not being genuinely committed to the process and using the courts to intimidate the opposition.
CPP negotiator and Interior Ministry Secretary of State Prum Sokha sat down with Post Weekend to talk about his party’s position.
Did the CPP only agree to a new National Election Committee in order to reach a political deal with the CNRP?
[There were] more than 10 months of protests from the opposition [after the election]. It led to turbulence in this country, especially in Phnom Penh, the heart of the government. But [because] of that long protest, no one [was] better off … it cost too much, not just to politicians or administrators or the police, but to ordinary people.
So [what] we wanted to get, and the CPP position was very clear … was a peaceful solution through negotiation to get a deal. We didn’t want to see this one lead to something [like what] happened in the Arab Spring … and recently in Ukraine. So how [could we] get that to come to an end? But in Cambodia, we got that one.
Is the four-plus-four-plus- one formula durable?
As a chief negotiator from the CPP I wasn’t pleased to [agree to] putting the formula of the composition of the NEC into the constitution. I said this one is just for this term, next term for example [if] you get three political parties and they get seats in the National Assembly, how do you apply this [two party] formula again? So maybe we [will] change, we will amend the constitution again. But we had to go ahead with this one to please our partner, to get them to join the National Assembly.
Some observers say that, now the political situation has cooled down, the CPP is showing it is not completely committed to election reforms and is trying to buy time. What is your response?
No, I don’t think so. I mean that even without political pressure from the CNRP, the CPP would still [have] allowed the NEC to go independently with their reforms as normal, as in previous times, but this time we had to take care of [the CNRP’s] key protest [which was] to get the neutrality and independence of the NEC.
Are you admitting that the NEC was not neutral and independent before?
No. If there was no standard of independence or neutrality of the NEC so far, how could the opposition have earned their seats in the National Aseembly from 30-plus to 55 seats? And how could the ruling party’s seats drop dramatically?
Why is the CPP pushing for a restriction on dual nationals being members of the NEC if it had previously agreed that Pung Chhiv Kek of rights group Licadho (a citizen of three countries) could be the ninth “consensus” candidate?
They agreed on [Pung Chhiv Kek] but, [as far as] how we set the criteria for that candidate, we are just talking on this one [instance]. You can imagine those nine people should have very critical conditions to make sure they are neutral.
Are you saying that even though Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy agreed on Kek, nothing was set in stone?
Yes, that’s what I mean. It was just a political agreement or political deal, but we have to get that one through the legal process or legal procedure. That’s why I say that the July 22 political agreement is just [a] political paper, but to get it to apply [it needs to be] converted into a legal instrument.
Election watchdogs say there are some very critical things that need to be changed in the way that elections are administered, such as voter registration. Is that part of what is being discussed?
Not yet. But in terms of the voter list or voter registration, it’s a part of the election administration. [And] just because you make reforms, it does not mean you change 100 per cent of this one. It be-comes revolution. You cannot abandon all the existing [administration]. Absolutely not.
Now the two parties just agreed to get a new list of voters. [But a] new list doesn’t mean we have new registration. From a technical point of view, and in my opinion, we agreed that if we can get a new registration in just one year or nine months, we can go ahead. But we have to be realistic because the next [commune] election is in 2017. So another option is we get this updated list to be reviewed from both sides.
What is your response to the idea that the recent arrests of CNRP activists are to apply pressure on the opposition?
I can say that the political agreement on July 22, it’s a political agreement. We cannot replace the law. But [with these arrests], it’s the law, they apply the law, the rule of law, it’s a different thing. It doesn’t mean that, “oh, we do this to oppress or to press on the opposition to get our concessions”, no. The concessions [being given] now are mostly from the CPP. From election reform policy to NEC reform … we follow them on all of this … We will go ahead with this one, but we want them to cooperate to get the reforms done.
You must be aware that many Cambodians feel like the police or courts do not treat everybody equally. For example, seven land activists last week were arrested, charged and convicted within just 24 hours.
Democracy should be linked up to the rule of law. So nobody is above the law. Our law enforcement agencies, they just respect the law, and they have to make sure that the law is respected by everyone.
The arrests are based on law, based on evidence. It’s not politically motivated and [there are] no double standards in this country. Nobody is above the law, even politicians, administrators, businessmen.
Are government reforms going far enough to win back votes lost last election?
Now [we are] just on the way; we cannot say that it’s enough or not enough. But any reforms in the world [are] not easy. We should sacrifice, but we don’t want to mix up between evolution or reform and revolution.
Interview has been edited for length and clarity.