Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy are no closer to agreeing on an independent investigation of July’s disputed national election—the opposition CNRP’s main demand for settling weeks of political deadlock—after more than five hours of negotiations behind closed doors on Monday.
Long-time political rivals, Mr. Hun Sen and Mr. Rainsy managed a cordial handshake before the start of Monday morning’s negotiations at the National Assembly.
Emerging from the talks some five hours later, CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann hailed the talks as a success and said that the two sides had made some progress, including an agreement to keep negotiating.
But he said the opposition had still not agreed to attend the opening of the new National Assembly on Monday, and the party would continue demanding an impartial probe of the vote.
“We still continue to demand for the formation of the investigation commission to find justice for the people, but both parties need to think to find the middle way to the agreement,” he told reporters.
Both parties are again scheduled to sit down at the negotiating table today.
The opposition has threatened to boycott the Assembly’s opening session on Monday unless the government agrees to an impartial probe into election-day irregularities, which it blames for its official loss at the polls.
But the CPP, which has from the start rejected the possibility of any investigation independent of the National Election Committee (NEC), the very body the opposition accuses of favoring the ruling party, was not budging.
Standing by Mr. Sovann’s side at the press conference, CPP Council of Ministers Secretary of State Prak Sokhon said the time for investigations had passed.
“The CPP cannot move backward to create any committee that does not comply with the law,” he said. “The [Constitutional Council] has made its judgment that the CPP won 68 seats and the CNRP won 55 seats, so we don’t have the right to move back.”
Mr. Sokhon added that the CPP would attend the opening of Parliament on Monday whether or not the opposition showed.
The CNRP’s Mr. Sovann said the parties had agreed on three points, however, including the formation of a new bipartisan committee to hash out electoral reforms and a pledge to keep the peace in the midst of ongoing opposition demonstrations in Phnom Penh that turned violent and deadly on Sunday.
On Monday morning, King Norodom Sihamoni issued a statement urging protesters and police to refrain from violence after a man was shot and killed by police during a clash with protesters near Monivong Bridge.
“First point is to avoid violence. We have to respect the royal letter of the King that [is] dated today that asks both CNRP and the CPP how to avoid as much as possible the violence. We have to keep peaceful. Our demonstration must keep peaceful, and also the government must be very patient, not to use force, not to use any weapon against demonstrators,” Mr. Sovann said.
“Second is we agree to form [a] mechanism, a committee for electoral reform. We need to reform the NEC, we need to amend some laws related to elections. Also, we have to have [a] new voter list.
“And the third one is we continue to negotiate at every level, not only the summit level, the top level, but also…the technical level.”
He also said the three days of protests the opposition has been hosting in central Phnom Penh would run their course and wrap up this afternoon as scheduled. Depending on the progress of negotiations, he said the CNRP might still expand the demonstrations to the provinces after that.
“We will think about how to organize more demonstration or not. It depends on the standing committee of CNRP,” Mr. Sovann said.
Mr. Sovann on Sunday said the opposition would also be demanding from Mr. Hun Sen permission to own its own television station to help rebalance a national media environment currently dominated by CPP-aligned stations and newspapers, but he downplayed that idea.
“I think that this is a small thing,” he said. “When the election is reformed, [the] NEC is reformed already, we reach the target.”
As for electoral reform, Mr. Sovann said the opposition would be pressing for changes to the composition of the NEC, which is stacked with former CPP officials. Current election laws give the CPP-controlled Interior Ministry complete control in selecting candidates for the electoral committee and the CPP-dominated Parliament the power to approve them.
Highlighting just how far apart the two parties were even on this, Mr. Sokhon’s idea of NEC reform involved mulling the possibility of changing the current dates of national elections, which are held every five years, and voter registration to avoid the rainy season.
“There is a lot of work to be done, including whether the day for voting, which falls at the end of July, is acceptable because of the rainy season,” Mr. Sokhon said.
“And should voter registration stay in October? Because there are usually big floods that month, which make it hard for people who live in flooded areas to come to register,” he continued.
The opposition has far bigger problems with the NEC and the voter registration process than simply inclement weather.
According to three separate, independent audits of the NEC’s last voter list, including the government’s own, roughly one-tenth of eligible voters were either left off or improperly registered on the voter list.
On polling day, problems with the list accounted for some of the most commonly reported irregularities as many voters complained of either not finding their names at polling stations or showing up only to find that someone had already cast a ballot in their place.
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