After Protests, What Next For Political Stalemate?

The opposition CNRP wound up another round of demonstrations on Friday, ending what were some of the largest protest marches ever against Prime Minister Hun Sen’s long-ruling CPP government.

Tens of thousands of supporters accompanied opposition leaders in marches across Phnom Penh to deliver a petition with more than 2 million signatures to the U.N. They also delivered letters to numerous embassies seeking the international community’s re-engagement to ensure that Cambodia’s 22-year-old wish to become a genuine, multiparty democracy is finally fulfilled.

–News Analysis

While Mr. Hun Sen’s government capitulated, strategically, in the face of the opposition’s vow that it would march in the streets from Wednesday to Friday, there is little indication that the CNRP’s show of people-power muscle has pushed the CPP any closer to meeting even the opposition’s most basic demands.

“The next meeting between CNRP and CPP cannot take place unless the opposition parliamentarians agree first to take their oath as official lawmakers,” CPP lawmaker and party spokesman Cheam Yeap said.

The CNRP, Mr. Yeap said on Thursday, will not win any more concessions from the ruling party until their 55 lawmakers, who are boycotting the National Assem­bly, take their seats.

He also alluded to an earlier threat by Mr. Hun Sen that the ruling party could redistribute the CNRP’s seats if they continue to boycott.

“Three months after the King convened the first National Assembly session [on September 23], we can write to the National Election Committee [NEC] and Constitution­al Council to take legal measures…to bring them [CNRP lawmakers] to the National Assembly, or what shall we do with the remaining seats?” Mr. Yeap asked, preferring to leave his own question unanswered.

While the laws on political parties and elections say the NEC can give away a party’s seats if the party “declares to abandon” them, Mr. Yeap has led the argument in re­cent weeks that an extended boycott is effectively abandonment.

Neither the CNRP nor Tep Ny­tha, secretary-general of the NEC, agrees with Mr. Yeap’s theory.

CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the opposition would not consider taking its seats until mechanisms are put in place to guarantee the reform of the NEC and other state institutions.

Mr. Sovann, who is an elected CNRP lawmaker for Phnom Penh, said that the opposition wants to sit down for further talks at which the CPP would have to make guarantees for reform, and would then put in place mechanisms to enforce those guarantees. That would be the minimum requirement before the CNRP considers taking its place in parliament, which is necessary to legitimize Mr. Hun Sen’s government.

“If you really want to solve the problem and want electoral reform, we have to sit down first, negotiate, make the meeting public about what we will do next,” Mr. Sovann said.

“We have to agree on everything, including electoral reform and reform of some other state institutions before we take oaths [in the] National Assembly,” he said.

If the CPP continues its refusal to talk, they will face “endless demonstrations and strikes,” he added.

“I mean strikes forever until a resolution is found,” Mr. Sovann said, adding that he was not concerned with “demonstration fatigue” among CNRP supporters if they see that their efforts are not achieving results.

“The people agree to work very hard today, but they will get a prize at the end,” he said of the motivation for ongoing protests.

However, he declined to say when the CNRP would hold its next demonstration if the CPP continues to refuse to talk.

“I don’t think they will refuse,” Mr. Sovann continued.

“From now until December we [parliamentarians from both parties] have a lot of things to do, especially about the budget law for 2014. So I think that the CPP should consider seriously and come to the table and talk.”

Mu Sochua, a lawmaker-elect for Battambang province and chief of public affairs for the CNRP, said that if there is no progress at the negotiating table, the opposition would make good on its threats to hold nationwide protests to rally support.

“We will go back to demonstrations. We said nationwide. We said boycott, and at each demonstration people are more determined,” she said, adding that electoral reform is being talked about by the CPP specifically because the CNRP’s massive support has shown the unfairness of July’s election.

“In the three months [since the election], to establish this sense of ownership and credibility for the CNRP is huge—the political space that we have, moral power that we have, political clout that we have,” she said.

“Do you think the CPP can govern on their own? Do you know that the CPP wants legitimacy? They do not feel conformable with what they have in their hands. They cannot govern alone,” she added.

Last week, as the CNRP prepared for its three-day demonstrations marking the 22nd anniversary of the 1991 Paris Peace Agreement on October 23, the CPP announced it would hold a seminar on election reform, the next step in the party’s promise to change electoral laws and related institutions.

Mr. Yeap, the CPP spokesman, said that this should be enough to convince the CNRP that the CPP is serious about conducting thorough reforms in the next mandate.

“We already declared that we have a firm stance to make in-depth reforms around elections, so it is pretty clear we will conduct reforms to create a better [electoral institution],” he said.

When asked what specific reforms would be made, Mr. Yeap declined to answer.

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