Electoral Reform Meeting Ends in Deadlock

Representatives of the ruling CPP and opposition CNRP refused even to appear alongside each other Monday after the fourth meeting of the bipartisan Electoral Reform Commission, with the head of the ruling party’s delegation saying the government is now preparing to push ahead with reforms on its own.

The commission was established by the two parties late last month and has since held a series of increasingly tense meetings. The CNRP has accused the CPP of using the commission to present itself to diplomats and donors as open to reform while deliberately stalling any actual agreements on specific reforms.

“We are holding separate press conferences,” said Son Chhay, who has been leading the opposition on the commission, at the close of Monday’s meeting.

Mr. Chhay, who is also the CNRP’s chief whip, explained that the delegates of the two parties had planned to discuss three issues but could not move beyond the first—the CNRP’s call for reform of the National Electoral Commission (NEC).

“The sticking problem is about the priority of the NEC. It is the big issue and the basic issue, and we cannot solve it, so we will put this for a top-level meeting between the [party] leaders,” Mr. Chhay said at the CNRP press conference.

The opposition is calling for an overhaul of the NEC with new members elected by a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.

According to official election results, the CPP won 68 seats to the CNRP’s 55 in July’s national election. A two-thirds majority in the 123-seat Parliament would require the support of 82 lawmakers.

Bin Chhin, a deputy prime minister who has led the CPP on the commission, said a meeting between top-level leaders over NEC reform was not likely.

“This morning we have had a meeting of about half an hour and we knew we would have this problem,” Mr. Chhin said at the CPP’s press conference, about 10 meters away from the CNRP’s. “It is the CNRP who has asked to delay these negotiations, not us.”

Mr. Chhin said that the opposition had refused to discuss any of the 14 election reform points tabled at previous meetings and had focused only on the NEC. He explained that the CPP is now considering going ahead with the commission alone.

“We have a policy to reform [electoral] institutions,” Mr. Chhin explained.

“We have invited them and if they do not go [to future meetings or public forums], we cannot wait. We have to do this since we have announced this.”

He reiterated that the CPP could not consider requiring a two-thirds majority to elect NEC members, as it would potentially lead to deadlocks in forming the NEC.

Election monitors have called on the parties to meet more than once a week to discuss reform. They have also supported the CNRP’s calls for a focus on reform of the much-criticized NEC, which is currently dominated by members of the CPP.

The CPP has in turn called for the commission to discuss the reform of such election monitoring groups, who they accuse of pro-opposition bias.

In their first meeting on March 3, the two parties agreed in principle to reform voter registration and political finance laws. In the following days, opposition commission delegates said that those two points were the least important of seven that they had presented to the ruling party delegates.

After the second meeting on March 10, the two parties failed to come to any agreement, and did not even produce a joint statement about the meeting’s content. Opposition leader Sam Rainsy then threatened to end the talks and restart mass demonstrations.

On March 17, the CPP piled seven new negotiating points onto the CNRP’s original seven, adding laws restricting the publication of election opinion polls and revision of the electoral calendar to the agenda for discussion.

The last round of opposition protests peaked on December 29 with more than 50,000 people marching through the capital to demand that Prime Minister Hun Sen either stand down or call a new election.

The protests were violently suppressed on January 4, and the CPP government then summarily banned public gatherings and called on the CNRP to enter talks.

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