Time for Cambodia’s Opposition to Join the National Assembly

By Kyle Springer

Sam Rainsy leading a protest march in Cambodia. The CNRP plans another demonstration this Saturday, March 29, 2014. Source: Luc Forsyth's flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Sam Rainsy leading a protest march in Cambodia. His party, the CNRP, plans another mass protest this Sunday, March 30, 2014 in Phnom Penh. Source: Luc Forsyth’s flickr photostream, used under a creative commons license.

Recent negotiations between Sam Rainsy’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) on electoral reform have not gone smoothly despite concessions from the CPP. Reform of the National Election Committee, an institution aligned with the CPP, has emerged as a key sticking point. The CNRP on March 24 threatened to postpone further talks with the government after abruptly ending a meeting on reform. It now plans to hold a mass protest in Phnom Penh on March 30.

The CNRP’s threats to derail the reform talks are not constructive. Its leaders are using a risky strategy that does not take advantage of the CPP’s concessions, including the government’s recent agreement to put election commission reform back on the table. The CNRP should seize this moment and take the unprecedented number of seats they have won in the National Assembly.

Rainsy on March 12 told his supporters there was no other choice but to hold more demonstrations to persuade the CPP to reform the election commission. But the CNRP has already accomplished all it can in the streets; continued protests are not likely to extract further concessions from Hun Sen. Instead, further unrest may lead him to crack down on protesters again, as he did in early January when a garment workers’ strike merged with opposition demonstrations. Worse, pushing too hard could make Hun Sen – who has already threatened to take legal action against the opposition should it go ahead with the planned demonstration – renege on the concessions he has already made.

The CNRP needs to graduate to formulating real, tangible policies through the framework of a parliamentary opposition. As Cambodian human rights advocate Ou Virak argues, the National Assembly is where the debate on Cambodia’s political future should take place. Through their 55 seats in the 123-seat legislature, the CNRP could propose and draft laws to meet the needs of Cambodians, thereby strengthening the party’s legitimacy and widening its base of support.

CNRP legislators would also be able to oversee the implementation of promised electoral reforms, which the CPP emphasized must be done through the parliamentary process. Regardless of whether or not an early election occurs, the CNRP can use its position in the National Assembly to push legislation strengthening the transparency and integrity of future elections.

CNRP leaders should also listen to Cambodia’s non-governmental organizations. The Electoral Reform Alliance, a group of election monitors, urged both the CPP and the opposition on March 12 to reach a deal, encouraging the CNRP to take its seats in the parliament. The Committee for Free and Fair Elections also called on both sides not to delay negotiations and to hold daily, rather than weekly, talks on specific reform topics.

The CNRP risks making itself less, not more, relevant by choosing to boycott the National Assembly. It can achieve far more by playing the long game: joining parliament, helping to govern the country, devising concrete opposition policies, and waiting for the next national election. Meanwhile, it can directly engage in electoral reform and work with the CPP to make the playing filed more even during future polls. The onus is on Sam Rainsy and the CNRP not to let the CPP further entrench opaque rule of and weak governance in Cambodia for years to come.

Mr. Kyle Springer is a researcher with the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at CSIS.

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