After NEC Reform, Rainsy Says Higher Wages are Top Priority

CNRP leader Sam Rainsy said Wednesday that a higher minimum wage for garment workers and civil servants would be the opposition’s top legislative priority—after reconstituting the National Election Committee (NEC)—when it takes the 55 National Assembly seats it has been boycotting for the past year.

The CNRP has been refusing to take its seats in protest over what it says were rigged national elections last July but is expected to have its lawmakers-elect sworn in by the King in the coming days after reaching a deal with the ruling CPP on Tuesday to reform the NEC.

But even an optimistic Mr. Rainsy conceded that getting any of the opposition’s legislative agenda past the CPP—which will hold on to a majority of the assembly’s 123 seats as well as its standing committee, which decides what laws make it to the floor—will be much easier said than done.

“All our promises we will push through,” he said. “Whether we will succeed or not…we want our objectives to be the law, especially the minimum wage, to end the modern form of slavery.”

A $250 monthly minimum wage for the country’s civil servants and $150 for its garment workers were two of the CNRP’s key campaign pledges leading up to the elections, and among the most popular with voters.

The country’s more than 500,000 mostly young and female garment workers proved a key voting block for the opposition in the elections.

Mr. Rainsy said the party will also want to revisit and amend the laws the CPP has passed on its own since the elections, laws the opposition insists are invalid because the government should never have been allowed to form without the 55 CNRP lawmakers-elect taking their seats.

He said challenging controversial new laws the CPP is looking to pass imminently on NGO registration and cybercrime will also take a front seat. Laws fighting corruption, reforming a biased media landscape and protecting families against forced eviction would take priority as well, he said.

After the NEC, said CNRP lawmaker-elect Ou Chanrith, the party’s first order of business should be to revisit three judicial reform laws the CPP passed in the opposition’s absence and have been roundly criticized for giving the executive branch too much influence over the country’s already notoriously corrupt courts.

Then, he continued, he would like to see the CNRP tackle a law the National Assembly passed in 2009 regulating public demonstrations.

“Usually they use the excuse, like it will affect public order, to ban people from protesting,” Mr. Chanrith said. “Also, the one who leads the demonstration should not be responsible. It should be the police who are responsible.”

As the head of five of the National Assembly’s internal committees, including a new one focusing exclusively on fighting corruption, the CNRP will have an unprecedented chance to get its laws through the committees. But they will still have to get the Assembly’s 13-member standing committee, which the CPP will control, to bring those laws to the floor. If it manages that, the party will need to convince a CPP-led Assembly to pass them.

Mr. Rainsy spoke hopefully of getting some of the CPP’s new breed of reform-minded lawmakers to behave in a bipartisan manner. But that’s likely to prove a tall order in the face of a ruling party that has made political patronage its modus operandi for the past two decades.

In agreeing to take its parliamentary seats, the opposition has also abandoned some of its original demands, including a choice between either a rerun of last year’s national elections or a full, independent audit of the results. Even the keystone agreement it struck with the CPP over the NEC might yet fall through. Each party will get to pick four of the nine-seat body’s members, with the ninth tiebreaking seat to be chosen by consensus. If the parties can’t agree, the NEC reverts back to the CPP-dominated body it was during the last election.

Mr. Rainsy conceded Wednesday that opposition supporters may be “confused” by the deal the party struck to take its seats.

“I know our voters are a little confused, but only time will show that our approach is the right approach,” he said. “We know that street demonstrations cannot achieve much…. We have to push for new legislation and amend old legislation that is not very good for the country.”

Besides getting some amendments made to the recent judicial reform laws, which the King has yet to sign, political analyst Lao Mong May said it was unlikely the CNRP could push through new laws.

Still, he said, the opposition party could better hold the CPP to account.

“They could use the existing laws to hold the government accountable,” Mr. Mong Hay said. “They can review the Land Law and get the government to at least explain why there are so many land disputes…. Why is there so much deforestation? Why are the fish stocks being depleted?”

“They can review all the existing laws,” he said. “That would be a major change. It would cause the government a lot of headaches.”

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