With the National Assembly paralyzed by an opposition boycott, Second Prime Minister Hun Sen on Tuesday took the extraordinary step of telephoning his rival, deposed first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, to offer a way out.
The call, which interrupted a meeting between the prince and party loyalists, was the first direct contact between the bitter political rivals since Hun Sen effectively ousted Prince Ranariddh after factional fighting last July.
Speaking outside the Assembly shortly after the call, Hun Sen told reporters he had offered the prince a compromise on one of the most contentious issues surrounding the organization of the upcoming polls.
“I talked with the prince and I agreed with him to have the votes counted at the commune level, not the village or provincial level,” Hun Sen told reporters outside the Assembly. In return, Hun Sen requested the prince send Funcinpec parliamentarians to the Assembly to make up the necessary quorum to open the session.
CPP parliamentarians defeated an electoral amendment last month calling for the votes cast in July’s scheduled elections to be counted at the district level rather than at village polling stations.
In protest, opposition politicians began boycotting parliamentary sessions last Wednesday. They charged that a ballot count at village level could lead to voter intimidation, as political parties would be able to identify how each area had voted.
After receiving Hun Sen’s offer, the prince dispatched six Funcinpec parliamentarians to the Assembly so that debate could resume on legislation crucial for the July election.
“A moment ago, Samdech Second Prime Minister called me and asked me to send Funcinpec members for a meeting,” the prince told his supporters after Hun Sen’s call interrupted his speech at party headquarters. “So I am sending six of you.”
Led by Education Minister Tol Lah, the Funcinpec parliamentarians increased the number of attendees to one above the required quorum of 84, effectively breaking the opposition boycott.
Parliamentarians debated a delay in the beginning of voter registration from May 18 to May 23, the selection of members of the Constitutional Council and the proposed change in vote-counting locations.
The Assembly session wound up after passing the registration delay, giving the National Election Committee the power to change the date as it wished.
But not all of the parliamentarians who had called for the amendment on the vote count were happy with the prince’s unilateral decision to accept the compromise of a count at the commune level.
“I think we are not satisfied,” said BLDP parliamentarian Son Chhay, one of the amendment’s most outspoken advocates. “People can feel a bit safer, but this is not the thing we agreed on when we discussed this issue.”
Son Chhay also expressed disappointment at the way the prince accepted Hun Sen’s offer without consulting his opposition allies.
“The prince is excited to get a phone call from Hun Sen,” he said. “But it is hurting the opposition parties for Funcinpec to decide alone. We should consult each other.”
Son Chhay said it was too early to say how opposition lawmakers would react to the deal.
“We are going to wait for an explanation from Prince Ranariddh,” he said, adding that the group hoped to meet with the National Election Committee in the next few days to enlist support for the more radical vote-counting amendment.
Son Chhay also said that he met with Tol Lah, who told him Hun Sen had assured the group that room would be made for a Funcinpec appointee on the as-yet-unformed Constitutional Council if the party cooperated to break the parliamentary deadlock.
“It is a move to save face,” Son Chhay said of Hun Sen’s turn-about. On Monday, the second prime minister warned lawmakers the boycott could end up delaying the election, resulting in the dissolution of parliament in September.
Election watcher and political analyst Lao Mong Hay said Hun Sen’s switch appeared to be a “reflection of pressure from his colleagues in his own party because the tougher Hun Sen’s stance, the lower the CPP’s popularity sinks.”
Hun Sen on Tuesday also appeared to capitulate on his previous demand that the prince give up his title of first prime minister if the two men are to meet face to face.
After the telephone conversation between the two, Prince Ranariddh told his supporters Hun Sen had asked him not to leave the country again so that they would be able to meet for discussions.
Outside the Assembly, Hun Sen told reporters he would set up a personal meeting with the prince.
“This was my first time [talking to the prince] and we also plan to have a face-to-face meeting in order to discuss some of the problems,” Hun Sen said.
In particular, the second prime minister said, he wanted to talk to Prince Ranariddh about the reintegration of his resistance troops into the government army—a key requirement of a Japanese-brokered peace plan aimed at clearing the way for elections. (Reporting by Kimsan Chantara, Kay Kimsong and Catherine Philp)