siem reap town – The new National Assembly will begin work next week without an agreement for a new government, delegates to a tripartisan summit with King Norodom Sihanouk said Tuesday.
The summit itself helped defuse an ongoing and increasingly violent crisis in Cambodia, but appeared to make little progress toward breaking the political deadlock following the July 26 elections.
The new 122-member parliament, which delegates said could meet as early as next Tuesday, will elect its own leaders and carry on crucial business while waiting for negotiations to yield a deal to form a government—a deal that all concerned admit might still be far in the distance.
Delegates said the summit discussed only convening the Assembly—members are scheduled to meet at a ceremonial swearing-in Thursday at historic Angkor Wat—and did not address proposals for a coalition government, as some expected it might. The present government headed by Second Prime Minister Hun Sen and First Prime Minister Ung Huot will continue as a caretaker during negotiations, delegates said.
Still, Funcinpec President
Prince Norodom Ranariddh hailed the meeting for moving Cambodia’s political battles from the streets to the parliament, where he said they belong.
“Now we have moved…from threats to the democratic and legal framework,” Prince Ranariddh said. “I think all of us have to view it as a positive step.”
Sam Rainsy, president of his self-named opposition party that led two weeks of opposition protests against alleged election fraud and had threatened along with Funcinpec to boycott the National Assembly, said he was glad the CPP did not push for an agreement on a coalition government. Hun Sen has lately ordered restrictions on the movement of opposition politicians and threatened to arrest some, and Sam Rainsy said before going into the meeting that he felt he could not negotiate while under threat.
“I am relieved that there was no pressure to accept a package right now,” Sam Rainsy said after the meeting. “I was concerned we would be forced to commit ourselves to a coalition government.”
King Sihanouk himself favors a three-party coalition government, but also told the parties Tuesday that they, and not he, should make the decision, said Prince Ranariddh, the King’s son. The monarch’s stance as mediator is in contrast to his role after the 1993 elections, when he pushed for a similar multi-party coalition, one which fell apart amid factional fighting four years later.
Senior CPP official Sok An, the minister for the Council of Ministers, also told reporters the summit represented a step toward returning Cambodia to political normalcy. “What is important within the summit is that all three political parties agreed to allow the National Assembly to continue work as usual according to the rules and regulations of parliament,” Sok An said.
Tuesday’s meeting marked the first time Hun Sen and Prince Ranariddh had met face-to-face since the prince was ousted as Hun Sen’s co-premier last year following two days of bloody street battles. Hun Sen and the CPP have dominated the government since the fighting.
Since the July elections, which the CPP won, Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party have been threatening to boycott the National Assembly and block formation of a new government. Though it has the most seats in parliament, the CPP is short of the two-thirds majority support necessary under the Constitution to form a government.
The opposition alliance has said the CPP gained its absolute majority in parliament through a combination of voter intimidation, ballot fraud and a new seat-allocation formula that gives more seats to the CPP than an older one would have.
Prince Ranariddh said Tuesday that Hun Sen did make one concession at the meeting by agreeing to urge the National Assembly to reconcile the used and unused ballots from the election to attempt to detect any fraud. But Sam Rainsy said he was not impressed. “This is not a concession on the part of the CPP. This is what the NEC should have done already.”
The prince said that even though Hun Sen did not specifically guarantee it, he feels confident that new parliamentarians will be free to leave the country after they are sworn into office Thursday.
Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy officials have been forbidden to leave Cambodia after Hun Sen said they might be implicated in a non-injury grenade explosion at his Phnom Penh home earlier this month.
Sam Rainsy—who has been the most outspoken in criticism of the election results—seemed least happy with the summit. Looking weary and speaking slowly after Tuesday’s meeting, he insisted that his decision for his 15 parliamentarians to attend the Assembly sessions does not mean he has given in to pressure from the government.
“I have no choice but to go to the National Assembly, but I will express my views later on,” he said. “Going to the National Assembly is not a big thing, but to commit oneself to doing things which endorse a destructive policy and undemocratic system—this is definitely betraying the people.”
Sok An said that neither opposition party raised the issue of Hun Sen as prime minister at the meeting. The opposition has previously vowed not to vote for any government headed by Hun Sen, but the CPP maintains his candidacy is non-negotiable.