A group of nongovernmental organizations on Wednesday called on Cambodia’s ruling and opposition parties to support limiting the position of prime minister to two terms in office in the interest of furthering democracy in the country.
Koul Panha, director of election watchdog Comfrel, told RFA’s Khmer Service that it was time to impose the limit on the country’s most senior political position, which has been held by 61-year-old Prime Minister Hun Sen since 1985.
“Even communist countries like Vietnam and China limit the prime minister to two terms only—this is common internationally, regardless of whether it is in a communist or democratic society,” he said.
“Our country must participate in the democratic process. If the prime minister stays in power for too long, it could be dangerous and lead to a consolidation of power. This would negatively affect the democratic process in Cambodia.”
Rights lawyer Sok Sam Oeun, who is chairman of Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC) coalition of 21 NGOs, said that if Hun Sen and lawmakers from the two parties in the National Assembly (parliament) agree to put the limit into law, “it will benefit the country’s young generation.”
“This is a good time to limit the term of prime minister. We are giving him an exit strategy,” he said of Hun Sen, who in May last year vowed to stay in power until he is 74.
“[After changing the law] we would start over [from the next election] and Samdech [Hun Sen] could have two more terms before he steps down. That would allow him time to reach senior age, so we could agree [to the limit].”
Under Cambodia’s current system, there is no limit on the number of consecutive terms a prime minister can serve after his or her party wins the majority of seats in the National Assembly in national elections, which are held every five years.
Hun Sen was re-elected prime minister when his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was declared the winner of disputed elections in July last year by the government-appointed National Election Committee (NEC), which oversees the nation’s polls.
The announcement prompted opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) to boycott the National Assembly, claiming the polls had been rigged.
On July 22, the two sides came to a power-sharing agreement which saw opposition lawmakers end their nearly one-year boycott in exchange for a CPP pledge to grant the CNRP leadership of certain parliamentary committees and an agreement to reform the country’s electoral system.
The group of NGOs on Wednesday made its recommendation on the term limit to both parties as they write up their respective drafts for Cambodia’s new election law, which will be debated in parliament before being approved.
Tapping former PMs
The NGOs have also sought the support of Cambodia’s former leaders in their campaign, meeting Wednesday with Pen Sovann, who served as the prime minister of the Hanoi-backed People’s Republic of Kampuchea for six months in 1981 before being arrested by the Vietnamese and imprisoned until 1992.
Pen Sovann, who won a parliamentary seat with the CNRP in last year’s elections, said at a press conference following the meeting that by instituting a limit on the number of terms a prime minster can serve, Cambodia would reduce the likelihood of becoming ruled by a dictatorship.
“I think if a prime minister stays in power for more than 10 years, he or she would consider themselves better than anyone else. [At that point] they can’t think right and would consolidate power,” he said.
“We currently have a prime minister who has been in power for [nearly] 30 years. It is bad for the country and will lead to nepotism and a dictatorship.”
The NGOs also plan to enlist the support of former prime ministers Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Ung Huot, both of whom served alongside Hun Sen during their terms.
Norodom Ranariddh, who is also the half-brother of current King Norodom Sihamoni, was Cambodia’s first democratically-elected prime minister from 1993 to 1997 and was deposed by Hun Sen in a coup.
His replacement, Ung Huot, became prime minister in 1997, but his party failed to gain a seat in parliament in 1998 elections and he was forced to resign from office.
Koul Panha said that the NGOs will submit their proposal to the National Assembly and Hun Sen later this week.
According to the Cambodia Daily, CNRP Deputy President Kem Sokha said last week that his party might broach term limits with the CPP after the reforms of the July political agreement have been implemented.
“I don’t want to raise something that we have not yet reached a compromise on,” he said.
“But as I said, I will raise this if we can start working together well and have a mutual understanding with a good environment.”
The Phnom Penh Post quoted CPP lawmaker and National Assembly spokesman Nhem Thavy last month as saying that because limiting the term of the prime minister was not in the July agreement, it would not be up for discussion.
Hun Sen is Southeast Asia’s longest-serving leader by far and has retained power amid accusations that his regime suppresses political freedoms and mistreats rights campaigners.
Hun Sen said in 2007 that he will continue to stand as a candidate in elections until he is 90, and in 2009 indicated he would be out of politics by 2023.
Reported by Leng Maly for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.