Despite suffering a major hit in the parliamentary election Sunday, the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) will hold on to a majority of National Assembly seats for another five years should unofficial results released by the information minister stand.
Under the country’s Constitution, a simple majority is all that is needed to form a government and pass most laws.
But having relieved the CPP of its supermajority in Parliament, the opposition could make life very hard for Prime Minister Hun Sen, and for the first time turn the CPP-led Parliament into something more than a rubber stamp, analysts and legal experts said Monday.
“Now they have to deal with the opposition, they cannot do like before,” said Son Soubert, a former member of the country’s Constitutional Council, who recently allied with the opposition.
With 123 seats in the Assembly, the CPP needed only 62 lawmakers to form the next government and says it won 68.
But Mr. Soubert said the magic number is actually 82 seats. That’s how many lawmakers the Assembly needs just to hold a meeting. Without that quorum, he said, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), which won the other 55 seats on Sunday, could effectively hold the government to ransom.
“What the Rescue Party can do, they can refuse to join the National Assembly, and then the National Assembly cannot form,” he said.
The Constitution says a “valid” meeting of the Assembly needs at least two-thirds of all lawmakers, or 82 members. After Sunday’s elections, the CPP is 14 seats short of the constitutional requirement.
The National Election Committee (NEC) has yet to endorse the information minister’s poll results released on Sunday evening. The CNRP has rejected that result and is demanding an independent investigation into allegations of widespread polling irregularities that it says may have robbed it of an outright victory.
But should the preliminary numbers roughly hold, said independent political analyst Kem Ley, the opposition can use the CPP’s modest majority to its advantage to push through parts of its own agenda.
The CPP may technically have enough votes to pass most laws short of a constitutional amendment, he said, but it won’t be passing much if the opposition refuses to let the National Assembly even meet.
“If they can’t persuade the opposition to attend the meeting, how can they pass the law?” he said. “They need the quorum to meet, so the CPP will need to compromise with the CNRP.”
Mr. Ley said he expected the CPP to give way on some of the opposition’s key campaign pledges, including raising wages for civil servants and tightening immigration policies.
Besides the legislative math, he said, the CPP could no longer ignore the reality that a great many Cambodians no longer want what it has to offer.
“They realize the majority of the people want change, that the people are not happy with them, so even though they control all the ministries they will feel pressure to change.”
Sok Sam Oeun, a prominent lawyer who heads the Cambodian Defenders Project, a legal aid NGO, said the momentum was clearly with the opposition.
“Right now they have the power,” he said. “The opposition can use this as a chance for compromise, otherwise they will not join the meeting to form the Parliament.”
Even if the opposition does let the CPP form the next government, it can still keep the Assembly from meeting any time it wants.
“It has a lot of power,” Mr. Sam Oeun said. “It has the power to negotiate and it can control the legislature.”
The opposition will not have a shot at any ministries without entering into an official coalition with the CPP, which Mr. Sam Oeun said was unlikely after the uninspiring example set by Funcinpec during its coalitions with the CPP.
After the royalist party joined the CPP as a junior coalition partner following the national elections in 1993, 1998, 2003 and 2008, it won some ministry posts but watched its political fortunes steadily dwindle, and on Sunday failed to win a single Assembly seat.
“The CPP wants a coalition,” Mr. Sam Oeun said. “For example after forming the coalition with Funcinpec, it could destroy Funcinpec.”
He said the opposition was more likely to try to parlay its newfound power into some control over a few Assembly commissions, the powerful finance commission first and foremost.
CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun, whose own Assembly seat was cast into some doubt after the party’s modest showing on Sunday in his home province of Battambang, said the prospects are still good for his party.
“I don’t know yet if the two parties have plans to talk about their roles on the nine commissions, but I think the CNRP will have a role,” he said. “I think the two parties will negotiate.”
But Mr. Vun dismissed any talk of a coalition with the CNRP or compromising with it on any new laws.
“We cannot follow the policies of the opposition party because the party lost the election,” he said. “They have no right to demand anything because the people voted for the Cambodian People’s Party.”
But a CPP secretary of state, speaking on condition of anonymity, conceded that business as usual at the National Assembly was likely over.
“The CPP will have [a] more difficult time in the National Assembly,” he said. “There will be more political discussion, more stalemate.”
The former Constitutional Council member, Mr. Soubert, said the CPP simply could not ignore the will of so many Cambodians who voted for change, and the violence that erupted on election day should remind the ruling party of the growing frustration of the people.
“The results clearly show that their policies are not exactly what the people wanted,” he said. “If the people feel frustrated, there will be unrest.”
(Additional reporting by Aun Pheap)