The number two leader of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) was on Tuesday elected as deputy speaker and 14 other CNRP lawmakers as members of key panels of parliament as the party gained unprecedented power in the legislature following a political deal with Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Lawmakers overwhelmingly approved Kem Sokha for the deputy speaker’s post—the most senior opposition position in parliament—with 116 of 122 voting in favor, four objections, and two abstentions. Another member of parliament was absent from the vote.
Tuesday’s appointment represented a concession by Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party as part of an agreement reached last month to end an opposition boycott of parliament in protest against July 2013 elections it said were tainted by fraud.
The CPP, which won 68 seats, was declared victor in the polls by the country’s government-appointed electoral body, but the CNRP garnered 55 seats in the National Assembly (parliament)—the largest share held by the opposition since Hun Sen came to power three decades ago.
Kem Sokha said Tuesday that he had earned his post as a result of his own struggles and the support of the country’s voters, adding that he would use his new role to ensure that the country’s executive, legislative, and judicial branches adhere to a system of checks and balances.
"We will have separation of powers and we will have political stability,” he told reporters after the vote in parliament.
“I believe that the people want a real democracy. My message to the people is that I won’t withdraw and I will protect your rights.”
Reuters news agency quoted Kem Sokha as saying that the opposition would at long last provide a balance to the power of the ruling party in the National Assembly, which had previously been seen as a rubber stamp parliament for the CPP.
“Even though a CPP member is president, they can't ignore the huge voice of the opposition party. It's hard for them to do that, because we are a lot of people,” Kem Sokha said.
“But we can see that this is a good start.”
CNRP President Sam Rainsy, who also joined parliament as a lawmaker following the July 22 deal with the CPP, welcomed Kem Sokha’s appointment as “a major step forward for the democratic process in the Assembly.”
Sam Rainsy told reporters that he would be assuming an advisory role within the parliament to allow his party’s younger leaders to gain greater experience in politics.
“I will guide them from behind the scene and provide advice to those who are younger,” he said.
Ahead of last year’s election, Sam Rainsy and Kem Sokha had agreed that if the CNRP won, the latter would become parliamentary president and the former Prime Minister.
Hun Sen applauded Kem Sokha’s appointment, but did not speak with reporters.
Also on Tuesday, the National Assembly voted 14 opposition lawmakers into three parliamentary committees, according to last month’s deal.
The opposition members to be included in seven other parliamentary panels would be decided on Wednesday.
Under the previous mandate, all panels were controlled by the CPP.
The parliament elected five CNRP members each to the opposition-controlled human rights and agriculture commissions and four CNRP members to the CPP-controlled finance commission.
The legislature will vote Wednesday for opposition lawmakers to be assigned to the remaining seven committees, which include the CPP-controlled defense and justice commissions and the CNRP-led women’s affairs, education, and anti-corruption commissions.
After the opposition members are voted to the 10 committees—all of which were assigned ruling party members from before the CNRP joined parliament—lawmakers will vote on chairman and deputy chairman positions for each commission.
Opposition members will also take six of the 13 positions on parliament’s standing committee, the body that sets the legislative agenda and oversees parliament’s internal rules.
In addition to an agreement by the CNRP to rejoin parliament and parliamentary concessions by the CPP, last month’s deal saw Hun Sen commit to broad electoral reforms and grant the opposition four of nine seats on the National Election Committee (NEC), which oversees the nation’s polls.
Hun Sen also agreed to provide the opposition with a television channel license.
The deal followed the opposition’s year-long boycott of the legislature, as well as months of sometimes violent protests in which CNRP supporters called for the prime minister to step down and agree to hold new elections.
The long-lasting standoff between the parties has left the two sides cautious of one another and it remains to be seen how they will work together as lawmakers.
Reuters quoted Kem Sokha as saying he would propose that Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen meet regularly to iron out their differences.
It said Sam Rainsy recently spoke of a need to “eliminate the culture of violence and revenge.”
Political analyst Ou Virak told Reuters he was skeptical the two sides could cooperate and ensure the truce held, adding that he anticipates the CPP will ensure it still gets its way in parliament.
“It's more symbolic, it's more ceremonial than the real power,” he said of the concessions.
Reported by Ses Vansak for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.