Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the main opposition party resumed negotiations on Thursday to break their 10-month stalemate but failed to reach an agreement on how to reform the country’s election body, party officials said.
The CPP agreed to a proposal by the Cambodia National Rescue Party’s (CNRP) to make the National Election Committee (NEC) a constitutionally mandated body but refused the opposition party’s demand that the panel’s membership be endorsed by a two-thirds majority in parliament.
The CPP insisted that NEC members be approved by only an absolute majority, officials said after the talks at the Senate building in Phnom Penh.
CPP lead negotiator Prum Sokha said changing to a two-thirds majority system would not provide a long-term solution to the political impasse the two parties have been locked in since July 2013 elections, in which the CNRP robbed the CPP of its long-running two-third majority.
“If changing it to a two-thirds majority would resolve all our problems then we would definitely do that, but it won’t,” he told reporters after the talks.
“The opposition says the two-thirds majority system will allow [the two parties] to have more confidence in one another. But it won’t…. It will just postpone our problems with each other.”
“That would lead to another deadlock and our democracy would be frozen. We wouldn’t be able to have another election,” he said.
If parliament is required to endorse the NEC with just a simple majority, the CPP will continue to retain control over who is in the panel.
After the July 28 polls, which the opposition maintains were fraught with irregularities, the NEC declared the CPP the winner with 68 seats in parliament to the CNRP’s 55.
CNRP lawmakers are currently boycotting the assembly in protest of the CPP’s victory and have called for a reelection.
The NEC, which oversees all elections in the country, currently has its members hand-picked by Hun Sen’s government. Critics have complained it lacks independence.
Hun Sen promised earlier this week that he would fulfill the opposition demand for a revamp of the NEC, in a turnaround from earlier CPP refusals that had led to a breakdown in talks between the two sides last month.
His statement that both the NEC’s responsibilities and its composition should be reformed had raised hopes that the two sides would be able to break their deadlock.
Senior CNRP member Eng Chhai Eang, who took part in the talks, said the opposition was sticking to its guns on the two-thirds majority demand because CNRP President Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen had already in private talks agreed on a need for both parties to have a say on NEC members.
“We want the NEC to be approved by a two-thirds majority because according to Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen’s conversation, they wanted to have NEC members agreed upon by both political parties in the assembly,” he said.
The CNRP was insisting on two-thirds approval for the NEC membership, but not for prime ministerial candidates, he said.
During the talks, which ended after about an hour, the CPP gave the CNRP a copy of a draft of a constitutional amendment that would add a chapter on the establishment of the NEC.
Prum Sokha told reporters the two sides would meet again for further discussions.
Party officials said the talks did not cover discussion on allowing the opposition a license to set up its own television, another issue Hun Sen had spoken of earlier this week.
All stations currently operating in Cambodia are either directly or indirectly controlled by the government or ruling party.
Senate approves laws on judiciary
Hun Sen has been pushing through bills in parliament despite the absence of elected opposition lawmakers.
Last month, the lower house or National Assembly passed three judicial laws that rights groups say will give Hun Sen’s government effective control over the judiciary and further undermine the independence of courts.
On Thursday, the Senate also approved the laws.
The 44 CPP members of the Senate voted unanimously to approve the laws, while the 11 CNRP members boycotted the session.
The three laws—the Law on the Organization and Functioning of the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, the Law on the Statute of Judges and Prosecutors, and the Law on the Organization of the Courts— in effect put the minister of justice at the center of all key decision-making by the judiciary and by the Supreme Council of the Magistracy, which is charged with appointing, disciplining, and overseeing the country’s judicial system.
The laws will now be sent to the King, who can sign them and make them effective.
The Senate said in a statement that it had approved the laws with no amendments, saying they would help ensure justice and increase the public’s confidence in the courts, protect the independence of the courts, and ensure efficiency in the justice system.
Sam Oeun Sok, a lawyer from the AMRIN Law and Consultants Group who monitored the legislation, said there had been little debate or consultation over the laws outside the government.
Since the laws were aimed at improving the judicial system, there should have been more debate about the laws and public participation if they were to improve the public’s trust in Cambodia’s courts.
“We will wait and see if the people trust the courts [after these laws]. If the courts continue to have the same problems the people will lose their trust,” he said.
A coalition of more than two dozen local rights groups called last month for a delay in voting for approval on the laws, which they said had not been written up in consultation with civil society and relevant stakeholders as required by the constitution.
Hun Sen has warned the opposition not to “interfere” with government plans for judicial reform.
Reported by Tin Zakariya and Sothearin Yeang for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Rachel Vandenbrink.