Cambodia’s ruling party lawmakers on Wednesday surprisingly rejected the nominations of two outspoken opposition candidates to lead key parliamentary commissions in an indication that voting in the legislature may not be tied to a deal to end a year-long political deadlock.
Wednesday’s session of the National Assembly, or parliament, saw 31 lawmakers from the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) voted into seven parliamentary panels as part of its deal with the ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP).
But longstanding CNRP land and rights activist Mu Sochua and CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann were summarily rejected by CPP lawmakers in a secret-ballot vote which would have seen the two opposition MPs lead a women’s affairs and labor panel, and an anti-corruption commission, respectively.
After the surprise vote, CNRP chief Sam Rainsy and deputy chief Kem Sokha met with Prime Minister Hun Sen, leading to new opposition nominations.
The CNRP put forward Ke Sovannaroth to run the women’s affairs and labor committee and Ho Vann to lead the anti-corruption panel—both of whom were elected without any problems.
Sam Rainsy told reporters after the session that all 55 opposition MPs had voted for Mu Sochua and Yim Sovann, but that both candidates received only 56 votes, meaning only one of the 67 CPP lawmakers present during the session had backed the duo.
When asked why the two MPs had been rejected, Sam Rainsy, who is also a lawmaker, told reporters to “please ask the CPP.”
CNRP MP Chea Poch confirmed that the CNRP lawmakers had voted in line with the party.
“We respect our party’s discipline,” he said, adding that it was “only the CPP [that] didn’t vote [for them].”
Yim Sovann said that his goals in parliament were unaffected by the vote and vowed to serve his constituents as a regular lawmaker.
Hun Sen, who heads the CPP, declined to answer questions from reporters after the vote about why his party had rejected the nominations of Mu Sochua and Yim Sovann.
Senior ruling party MP Chheang Von told reporters that the CPP had not planned to vote against the two lawmakers, saying only that “some of the CPP parliamentarians don’t like [Mu Sochua and Yim Sovann].”
“[But it’s] not only the CPP lawmakers that don’t like them. There are some CNRP lawmakers [who don’t like them] too,” he said, without specifying whom he was speaking about.
Chheang Von also did not identify the single CPP vote in favor of the two opposition lawmakers.
CPP lawmaker Kong Sam Ol was absent from Wednesday’s vote because he is currently traveling in China with King Norodom Sihamoni.
Wednesday’s session followed one held a day earlier which saw Kem Sokha elected as deputy speaker and 14 other CNRP lawmakers as members of three panels of parliament.
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.
Tuesday’s appointment represented a concession by the CPP as part of the 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—the largest share held by the opposition since Hun Sen came to power three decades ago.
Also on Tuesday, the National Assembly voted 14 opposition lawmakers into three parliamentary committees, according to last month’s deal, which grants each party control of five commissions.
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.
At the end of voting Wednesday, 45 opposition members had been voted onto the 10 committees and lawmakers will soon 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.
But Wednesday’s rejection of CNRP candidates has shown that voting procedures in parliament have been largely unaffected by July’s deal and has caused some observers to question whether CPP lawmakers are willing to fall in line behind Hun Sen, who crafted the power-sharing agreement.
On Tuesday, after Kem Sokha was voted into his new position, as guaranteed in the deal, former deputy speaker and senior CPP lawmaker Nguon Ngel appeared unwilling to give his seat up to the CNRP number two, causing Hun Sen to step in during the session.
According to local media reports, Kem Sokha made his way to the podium after his appointment was officially announced, greeting parliamentary president Heng Samrin and Nguon Ngel, who had been effectively demoted to second deputy through a unanimous vote.
But Nguon Ngel appeared reluctant to move, prompting Hun Sen to rise from his front-row seat and exhort him to vacate the chair.
According to the Cambodia Daily, since the July deal was struck, the prime minister has warned that CPP lawmakers may not have the party discipline to join with CNRP MPs to vote in reforms under the agreement without his presence in the chamber.
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.
Political commentator Sok Touch told RFA’s Khmer Service that Wednesday’s vote should serve as a warning to the CNRP.
“The CPP is using tricks against the opposition,” he said.
Reported by Ses Vansak for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.