It was a typical morning at the National Assembly earlier this week, with lawmakers meeting for two hours to debate legislation and then taking a short coffee break.
What made Tuesday’s session especially typical, was that not enough lawmakers returned from the 15-minute break, leaving the Assembly short of the minimum of 86 members required for it to conduct debate and vote on legislation.
Eighty-six of the Assembly’s 122 members are needed for a quorum. On Tuesday, the Assembly had 87 members, but were not able to meet in the late morning when two lawmakers fell sick.
On Wednesday, the Assembly again did not have a quorum, with just 82 members present. Thirty-three lawmakers had received official permission not to attend, Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh said.
Wednesday marked the 12th time since the Assembly’s ninth session began on Nov 25 that parliament was not able to hold scheduled debate because of a lack of lawmakers, according to the Center for Social Development. The eighth session, which met from May through August last year, failed to hold a quorum 15 times, Center for Social Development statistics show.
With many lawmakers traveling abroad or falling ill, others attending to their positions within the government and still others visiting their constituencies as the country prepares for July’s scheduled elections, the Assembly in recent weeks has struggled to be a functional and effective institution.
The Assembly’s performance has Minister of Commerce Cham Prasidh, among others, worried. The Assembly is currently considering a law on copyright protection—a top requirement if Cambodia is going to attain its stated goal of joining the World Trade Organization by the end of this year.
Other important pieces of legislation on customs, investment and commercial enterprise need to be considered in the next few months, Cham Prasidh said Wednesday. In all, more than 40 pieces of legislation need to be created or revised through 2004 to bring Cambodia up to WTO standards, the minister said.
“We need to have the most important laws first so that Cambodia can join the WTO in September,” he said. “If we miss that opportunity, I don’t know how much longer we will have to wait.”
Funcinpec lawmaker Keo Remy said Tuesday that the Assembly’s recent performance has been poor and accused some of his fellow parliamentarians of taking a perfunctory approach to their legislative duties.
More than 80 laws, including land and forestry laws, have been passed since 1998, when the current legislature was formed, Keo Remy said. But other important laws, such as an anti-corruption law, have continually been delayed, he said.
One way to ensure Assembly attendance is to restrict lawmakers from traveling abroad during an Assembly session, he said. The next Assembly, due to be elected in July, should also consider excluding top government officials from parliament, he said.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, Minister of Education Tol Lah, Minister of Health Hong Sun Huot, Minister of Cabinet Sok An, Minister of Finance Keat Chhon, Minister of Tourism Veng Sereyvuth, co-Minister of Interior You Hockry and Minister of Foreign Affairs Hor Namhong also serve as lawmakers. Keat Chhon regularly attends Assembly meetings, while others attend only sometimes or on rare occasions.
With the exception of the prime minister and deputy prime ministers, the Assembly should take parliamentary seats away from senior ministers and give them to people who are not restrained by other duties and can focus solely on lawmaking, Keo Remy said.
The Assembly made a similar move in December 1998 when it voted to bar secretaries of state and other officials who work in the government from also serving in parliament. Fourteen elected CPP lawmakers and 16 elected Funcinpec lawmakers who also held government positions were replaced by appointed party members.
Another reason for the poor turnout at the Assembly is that many opposition members are unhappy with Assembly leaders for not allowing them to speak out during debate, Keo Remy said.
Assembly Deputy Secretary General Chan Ven, a CPP member, said lawmakers from each of the three parties are have been absent in recent weeks. Most of the Sam Rainsy Party’s 15 members have not been in attendance, he said.
“The CPP is always thinking about this problem,” Chan Ven said. “CPP leaders are not happy each time there is a failure [to have a quorum].”
New internal rules may be needed to improve the Assembly’s attendance, he said. But the Assembly is most dependent on the “discipline and commitment of each lawmaker.”
Center for Social Development President Chea Vannath suggested changing the Constitution so that lawmakers would be more accountable to the citizens they are elected to represent.
“In the current electoral system, the lawmakers are not really representatives of the people. They are more representatives of their party, so they don’t care about the quorum,” she said.
“But if lawmakers had to satisfy the voters first, the Assembly would perform better and be more efficient.”
(Additional reporting by Yun Samean)