The opposition CNRP is caught in a bind.
Three months ago, it pledged to boycott the National Assembly until the country’s courts ended their assault on party leaders and respected the legal immunity of its lawmakers.
“All CNRP lawmakers cannot fulfill their work at the National Assembly when lawmakers’ immunities have repeatedly been violated,” the party said in a statement on May 27, calling for the cases to be dropped.
But there is no sign of that happening. CNRP President Sam Rainsy is living in France to avoid a two-year prison sentence, his deputy Kem Sokha is set to go on trial next month, and a senator and parliamentarian remain in Prey Sar prison awaiting trial.
Meanwhile, pressure is building on the party to show that it is capable of governing the country if it were to win the 2018 national election, mainly by using its power in parliament—it holds 55 of 123 seats—to propose policy, check the executive and offer an alternative agenda to that put forth by the ruling CPP.
But little of that can happen as long as the party refuses to enter parliament, leaving the CNRP in an awkward position of trying to prove its competence and pressure the ruling party through news conferences at its headquarters, public statements released online, and interviews to the media.
So will the party back down from its pledge and enter parliament, even as lawmakers linger behind bars and the courts press ahead with what are widely viewed to be politically motivated cases?
“I think we have not made this decision on that yet,” Son Chhay, a senior opposition lawmaker and the party’s chief whip, said Thursday. “I think if they can stop bothering our acting president [Mr. Sokha], we can still consider going back to work within the parliament.”
Though the opposition has been developing plans for more effectively leveraging its positions in parliament, Mr. Chhay said they would “absolutely” not end the boycott unless the court stopped going after Mr. Sokha, who is hiding in the party’s headquarters to avoid arrest and is set to stand trial on September 9 for refusing to appear as a witness in a case involving his alleged mistress.
“That’s why we put out a statement this morning saying that they should drop the case of Kem Sokha and this would help improve the situation and we can all go back to work,” he said.
Mr. Chhay said the CPP had recently shown signs that it was prepared to end the unconstitutional prosecution and arrests of opposition lawmakers. Rather than simply arresting two opposition lawmakers accused of procuring prostitution in the case centering around Mr. Sokha, as it did in unrelated cases involving opposition Senator Hong Sok Hour and lawmaker Um Sam An, the Ministry of Justice sent a formal request to the National Assembly last month to remove their immunity first.
Because such a move would require a two-thirds vote in parliament, it can be blocked by the CNRP and has not moved forward since the request was made.
“They seemed to go back and respect the law a bit more by asking for immunity to be lifted, so the government party seemed to back down from their previous behavior and respect the Constitution,” Mr. Chhay said.
Then the Phnom Penh Municipal Court informed Mr. Sokha over the past two weeks that he had been charged for “refusal to appear,” which carries one to six months in prison, and would quickly be tried for the alleged crime.
“The condition is simple,” Mr. Chhay said of the CNRP’s current stance. “They have to stop the attempts to arrest Kem Sokha and violating the Constitution.”
Even as the CPP has returned to old habits of attempting to quash the opposition at every turn, the CNRP says it has made significant gains in its efforts to become a more professional and policy-driven party—although it may be hard to see with the party stuck outside parliament and mired in legal disputes.
Much of this work has been supported by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung foundation, a German democracy building organization. Rene Gradwohl, the foundation’s country representative in Cambodia, said he would like to see the CNRP’s lawmakers end the boycott.
“I hope that CNRP will return to Parliament in the near future and engage in parliamentary politics,” he said, adding that the party was much better prepared to use the National Assembly to pressure the government and push policies due to forming its “Parliamentary Group,” headed by Mr. Chhay.
“This has been largely un(der)reported by Cambodian newspapers. It is now preparing to play a more active role in Parliament,” Mr. Gradwohl said, adding that the CNRP’s full policy platform would be released by the end of the year.
Yet even with these new tools, the possibility of the CNRP putting them to use in parliament and becoming an effective check on the ruling party remained unlikely, said Ou Virak, head of the Future Forum think tank.
“The question is, what can they get out of the boycott or joining parliament? I think the answer is nothing either way. That’s the sad reality,” Mr. Virak said. “There’s no real recognition of them within the parliament.”
Having recently established committees focused on various sectors of society, Mr. Virak said the CNRP needed to get serious about showing the public that it had the individuals and organization capable of running the country.
“They could join parliament and really establish themselves as a professional opposition or viable alternative, but when they stay out of parliament they don’t even try to do that,” he said.
“They can do that even if they don’t join parliament.”
(Additional reporting by Ben Sokhean)