The year-long deadlock is over. The deal has been made and, barring last-minute problems, the CNRP politicians are about to take their seats. So what now?
For years the ruling CPP has dominated Cambodia’s inscrutable legislature – rubber stamping its own laws, dismissing the opposition’s proposals and refusing to answer questions about the government’s performance.
But with the CNRP’s lawmakers-elect set to finally take their seats a year after last year’s election, boosted by some positions of influence, there is hope they might finally be able to mount an effective opposition.
“We will have a new environment,” said Mu Sochua, CNRP lawmaker-elect for Battambang and one of eight opposition figures jailed last week after violence at a demonstration.
“We will have a more legitimate and powerful presence and function like a real opposition,” she said.
The lawmaker-elect, who is also CNRP public affairs chief, was released on Tuesday, the same day the party announced it had reached an agreement with the CPP.
Since then, most of the focus has been on reform of the National Election Committee, part of the compromise that broke the impasse that has lasted since July’s disputed election.
But the NEC won’t come into play again until the next national election which is another four years away.
In the meantime, the CNRP has the job of providing an effective opposition; holding the government to account while also pushing its own policy agenda.
This week’s agreement will give the CNRP the chairmanships of five of 10 parliamentary commissions – including those covering labour, human rights and the new investigation and anti-corruption commission – and the first vice-presidency of the assembly.
The CNRP lawmakers-elect are certain these concessions will help them push through legislation or at least improve the transparency and oversight of the parliament.
Before last year’s election the party released a seven-point policy platform intended to address some of the chronic problems facing the country.
The policies included raising the minimum wage to $150 a month and for civil servants to $250 a month and free healthcare for the poor.
CNRP chief whip Son Chhay said these measures were still the party’s priorities and he hoped to pass some them, despite only holding 55 of the National Assembly’s 123 seats.
“I myself have already [prepared] a number of laws in response to our policy such as our minimum wage law, freedom of information and so on,” he said.
In the past the powerful 13-member standing committee and the parliamentary commissions had rejected laws proposed by non-government parliamentarians without explanation or debate, he continued.
But even though the CPP would have the numbers in the standing committee, he said things would be different now that the CNRP had the first vice-president position and control of some of the commissions.
“They will now have to come up with a really serious excuse before they can reject our [draft laws],” Chhay said.
The 10 commissions are supposed to examine draft laws before they go before the National Assembly for a vote and then oversee how they are implemented. They also have the power, in theory, to amend or block proposed legislation.
Sochua said the agreement for the CNRP to head commissions was a “remarkable improvement”.
Through the commissions, she continued, the CNRP would finally be able to apply scrutiny to the government, organising public hearings, conducting investigations and summoning government officials.
“I see more and more space for the people to be engaged, to monitor,” she said. “I see more and more room for accountability of the parliamentarians as well as the executive branch because we will be watching.”
Ouk Serei Sopheak, a freelance consultant on good governance, said he believed the CNRP lawmakers would be able to get unrestricted access to information related to their commissions and call government ministers and officials to answer questions.
“So this creates a very strong channel between the elected MPs and . . . the whole people,” he said. “And this will impress the mindset of the people in the three years before the next election.”
However, questions remain whether the CNRP lawmakers will be able to exercise the powers available.
For example, the commissions should be able to summon ministers but in practice there are no penalties for those who refuse to comply.
The International Republican Institute is working with Cambodian analysts to examine the foundations guiding the National Assembly and identify opportunities for reform.
The institute’s country director Jessica Keegan said the working group had found “a lot of room to strengthen the rules of parliament”.
“The internal rules guiding parliament are very vague and they do need clarification,” she said.
The parliament does not have adequate protocols for public access and hearings, media access, transparency of documentation and record keeping and it was “hard to say” how it would function in practice.
She said a standing orders commission could be established, staffed with civil servants, to enforce the rules of the assembly.
Political analyst Kem Lay said that the rules of the National Assembly made it almost impossible for the opposition to make an impact.
“[There is] nothing to be done now for the CNRP – because of the absolute majority.”
He said the opposition would walk out if there was a disagreement in parliament, and court media attention with press conferences outside.
“During the National Assembly they will boycott many times,” he predicted.
Chhay said the CNRP was still negotiating on requests for changes to the National Assembly rules including financial support for the opposition party caucus, sanctions for ministers who do not respond to questions, public access to hearings and recognition of the role of a shadow ministry.
So what happens if things remain as they have done in the past and the opposition continues to be ignored?
“Let’s see how it goes in the next 12 months,” Chhay said. “Will the prime minister respect his word in saying that he will respect role of the opposition and empower the opposition?
“Let’s see if we can stop the deforestation, see if we can stop the land grabbing and how far can we eradicate corruption. Let’s wait and see.”
Additional reporting by Poppy McPherson.