Updated at 11:30 a.m. EST on 2014-07-23
Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy forged a landmark agreement Tuesday that will see the opposition end a nearly one-year boycott of parliament and the ruling party adopt key reforms to the country’s electoral body.
The agreement broke a year-long political impasse following disputed July 2013 general elections in which Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was declared the victor by the government-appointed National Election Committee (NEC) despite allegations of widespread irregularities.
The pact was announced in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh after a five-hour meeting between the CPP and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) led by Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy.
The agreement led to the immediate release of seven CNRP lawmakers and another opposition politician from jail following their arrest last week on charges of waging an “insurrection” which could see them being imprisoned for up to 30 years if convicted.
Sam Rainsy told reporters after the meeting that the CNRP had “no choice” but to forge a compromise with the ruling party to end tensions stemming from their arrest during a bloody protest demanding the reopening of Freedom Park, the only venue for holding mass demonstrations in the capital.
“The only appropriate choice was to end the political crisis, and to end the tense situation,” Sam Rainsy said, adding that CNRP lawmakers would take their oath after having an audience with King Norodom Sihamoni.
Hun Sen was quoted saying that the talks were a success as he left the meeting in the senate building.
The CNRP had boycotted the National Assembly, or parliament, and held frequent protests calling on Hun Sen to quit and to hold new elections following last year’s disputed polls, which it claimed the CPP stole through voting fraud and other irregularities.
Several rounds of talks between the parties had failed, with the CNRP’s call for an overhaul of the NEC a major sticking point.
In a key compromise that led to the end of the CNRP boycott of parliament, the CPP and CNRP agreed Tuesday that each party could appoint four members to the NEC, with the ninth member to be jointly picked.
The NEC membership will have to be endorsed by parliament with an absolute majority instead of a two-thirds majority as demanded by the CNRP, according to the agreement.
“Both parties have agreed to reform the National Election Committee … membership now has to be appointed by the National Assembly with the majority vote of the whole parliament,” it said.
CPP negotiation team leader Prum Sokha told reporters that NEC reform had been the “main point of controversy” during the talks.
“But in the meeting between the two top party leaders, both agreed to make guidelines for the composition of the body more clear and specific in the constitution.”
Civil society groups can apply to become members of the NEC, he said.
The agreement also said that the NEC will also have its own autonomous budget, while the new date for the next national election—which was originally set for July 2018—will be determined by the CPP and the CNRP.
Agence France-Presse cited a CPP official as saying that the new elections would not be held before February 2018, despite calls from the opposition to hold them earlier.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said that it was also decided that the CNRP will be given a key role in managing several panels in parliament.
The assembly will have 10 commissions, with the ruling and opposition parties each chairing five.
The agreement said that the two parties will “amend the internal rules of the National Assembly to guarantee its proper and effective functioning,” and that a new Commission of Investigation, Clearance and Anti-Corruption will be created, to be chaired by the CNRP.
The assembly speaker will be chosen from the CPP, while the vice-speaker will be from the CNRP and the second vice-speaker from the CPP, the agreement said, adding that the two parties had also pledged to reform the senate leadership.
Yim Sovann said that the legislative role of Sam Rainsy, who did not run as a lawmaker in the July polls, was “unimportant.”
“The CNRP always puts the national interests ahead of the party,” he said.
The CNRP spokesman said that other topics covered during the talks included respect for minority rights, and the opposition’s access to television and radio station licenses, both of which he said the government had agreed to grant.
Tuesday’s talks were quickly followed by the release on bail of seven CNRP lawmakers and a party politician who had been arrested last week following clashes between opposition supporters and security personnel guarding Freedom Park.
Rights groups had said that their arrest was politically motivated and would be used as leverage by the CPP in forcing Sam Rainsy to return to the negotiating table to hash out an end to the deadlock.
Following her release on bail, outspoken CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, who was among the eight arrested, endorsed the agreement between the two parties while addressing a crowd of supporters outside Prey Sar Prison.
“Please let me express my deep and honest gratitude to all of our brothers and sisters for your long struggles—you are the victims,” she said.
“What you all want is the same as what we MPs want—justice. I clearly believe that we will build our nation together to make it democratic and free, with respect for equality and freedom for the people. As an MP, I am inspired to serve you even more.”
Despite the agreement Tuesday, major differences between the CPP and CNRP remain unresolved.
“I think Hun Sen got what he wanted by getting the CNRP to end the deadlock and legitimize parliament and the government,” AFP quoted Ou Virak of the Cambodian Centre of Human Rights (CCHR) as saying.
“But the opposition will still have some cards to play. There is nothing to stop them from walking out of parliament ... or going back to the streets.”
The opposition has staged several major demonstrations against Hun Sen’s government, calling for the prime minister’s resignation and new elections.
Authorities have responded with violence in some cases, including a crackdown on CNRP-backed striking garment workers in January that left five dead after security personnel opened fire on the demonstration.
Police removed CNRP supporters from Freedom Park—the capital’s only public space for protest—in the aftermath of that crackdown and barricaded off the site. A ban on public protests remains in effect.
Official results of last year's poll gave the CPP 68 seats to 55 for the CNRP—a loss of 22 seats for the ruling party, which endured its worst election result since 1998.
Hun Sen, 61, is Southeast Asia’s longest ruling leader and has vowed to stay in power until he is 74.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sum SokRy. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story mistakenly named the CPP as chair of the National Assembly's new Commission of Investigation, Clearance and Anti-Corruption.