For CNRP, How to Turn Popularity Into Policy

[This story was originally published on August 2]

It has been a decade since Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP has had to consider compromise with another political party.

For 11 months following the national election in 2003, there was a political stalemate when the CPP, unable to form a government after winning on­ly 73 Na­tional Assem­bly seats, had to negotiate with either Funcinpec or the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) to form a coalition government.

Finally, an agreement was struck with Funcinpec in June 2004 that saw the CPP cede control of nine ministries, including the Ministries of Health, Edu­cation and Tourism, along with the State Secretariat of Civil Avi­ation, to the royalist party, which was then headed by Prince Noro­dom Ranariddh.

–News Analysis

But just a month after the new government was formed, Funcinpec lawmakers were already lamenting their lack of legislative power within the new National Assembly.

“For every law, we cannot have enough force to veto,” senior Funcinpec lawmaker Monh Sa­phann said in July of that year.

Two elections later and Funcinpec’s influence has waned to the point of non-existence with the party winning no seats in Parliament in Sunday’s election.

While the opposition CNRP is calling for an investigation of election day irregularities before even considering talks with the ruling CPP over legitimizing a government, political analysts said Thursday that the most likely eventuality—should both parties follow existing laws—would be that they ultimately reach some sort of power-sharing agreement.

But that agreement, they said, must look very different from the CPP’s 2003 accord with Funcin­pec if the CNRP is to have any chance of fulfilling its mandate as the party of change and gain a real foothold inside the National Assembly.

One advantage the party has is significantly more power than either Funcinpec or the SRP had in 2003.

“The CNRP has a great deal of leverage,” said John Ciorciari, a Southeast Asia scholar at Michigan University’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

“It has the support of Western governments and media and thus the power to shape international perceptions of the legitimacy of the elections. The CNRP also has the power to instigate and guide public protests and make it difficult for the CPP to govern.”

Were it to accept preliminary results, the CNRP would have 55 out of 123 National Assembly seats, enough to prevent a two-thirds quorum from forming in the National Assembly, which some legal experts say is necessary to validate a new government.

“The electoral results enable [the CNRP] to cause the CPP quite a bit of pain. A political impasse akin to the one in 2003 is quite possible even if the As­sembly convenes, and CPP efforts to subdue or repress protests would entail significant costs and risks that the [CPP] leadership would surely rather avoid,” Mr. Ciorciari said.

With these bargaining chips, the CNRP would have to decide what concessions they will require from the CPP in order to allow a new government to form while simultaneously avoiding the sort of scenario that left Funcinpec an impotent force in government after the election in 2003.

“The CNRP should not adopt bad lessons learned by Funcinpec,” said Khem Ley, a political analyst and research consultant with the Cambodia Center for Human Rights (CCHR).

According to Mr. Ley, the CNRP should look back to the situation Funcinpec found itself in and avoid the same pitfalls.

“The best scenario is for the CNRP to stay outside of [the executive branch] of government and have strong rule over the National Assembly so there can be a balance of power between the National Assembly and the rest of government,” Mr. Ley said.

The CNRP should share control of the National Assembly’s permanent committee, which sets the parliamentary agenda, as well as taking key positions on the top of National Assembly committees, allowing it to propose policies and prevent the CPP from unilaterally passing new laws, Mr. Ley added.

One person who was aware of the dangers in the power-sharing agreement for Funcinpec was Kem Sokha, the CNRP’s vice president and a former Funcin­pec lawmaker who was then the president of CCHR. After the Fun­cin­pec-CPP coalition was announced in 2004, he was highly critical of the decision.

“Join the government for what? To change the country? You cannot,” he said in 2004.

Sok Sam Oeun, a prominent lawyer and a board member of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said that the opposition should use its negotiating power to allow for National Assembly members on both sides of the aisle to freely express their will, even if it goes against the party line.

“In order to strengthen the National Assembly, the internal rules of the National Assembly must be reviewed and I think that it is better to stop the decision making by raising hands. Every vote must be in the secret ballot. If it is a secret ballot, they [party leaders] cannot control the decision of Parliament,” Mr. Sam Oeun said.

Demanding ministerial positions, as Funcinpec did in 2003, could allow the CNRP to separate some civil servants from the CPP party structure, but may not achieve significant gains in the actual influence of the opposition within government, said Mr. Ciorciari at the University of Michigan.

“[R]egardless of whether the CNRP looks for a share of executive power, it’ll be weak at best, and the more promising short-term opportunities to generate some checks and balances will be in the Assembly,” he said.

If the scenario comes about where the CNRP is able to secure significant power within the National Assembly, the party would then have to adjust to being a viable opposition party, rather than simply serving as a critic of Mr. Hun Sen’s government, said Carlyle Thayer, Southeast Asia expert at the Australian National Defense Force Acad­emy in Canberra.

“The CNRP will have to adapt to the fact that while it did very well in the election, it did not win an absolute majority of seats in the National Assembly. The CNRP therefore will have to begin to act as a real Opposition,” Mr. Thayer said in an email, explaining that the opposition “must query and criticize government policies while offering viable alternative policies at the same time.”

“The CNRP will also have to think and act strategically, capitalizing on its current popularity. It must focus on the commune and provincial [parliamentary] elections [in 2017 and 2018, respectively] as part of a five-year strategic plan to gain office at the next national elections,” he said.

For Cambodia historian David Chandler, the CNRP would be best served to focus on substantive policies, rather than populist rhetoric, in building further support within the electorate.

“I think they [the CNRP] should agree to be a legitimate, united, programmatic opposition party (a concept that is alien to the CPP) and act responsibly in the Assembly. The party should refrain from anti-Vietnamese propaganda, and should emphasize its positive (and apparently appealing) platform,” Mr. Chan­dler said in an email.

Jessica Keegan, acting country director for the Washington-based International Republican Institute, said the opposition party would still be able to bring about fundamental change within the National Assembly even if it concedes defeat in what it claims were unfair elections.

“For the first time the CNRP will have the opportunity to serve on a number of important committees They can bring greater transparency and accountability into the executive process but the parties must work together for lasting reform to take root,” she said.

Although the CNRP would be in a position to block legislation put forth by the CPP due to rules requiring a two-thirds quorum, independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay said that he hoped the two-party system would usher in an era in which discussions over “power” gave way to reasoned debates over policy.

“I don’t like the idea of power sharing, people always talking about ‘power,’” Mr. Mong Hay said.

“You should have two parties, the ruling and opposition party. And the new government must submit a program to the parliament for adoption and debate.

“We cannot think in terms of the past as being resonant today. Society has sent a message that is very clear, especially among the young. They said we don’t like the [status quo]. The campaign showed that there are new aspirations. You cannot run the country the way you did before the election, or else society has passed you by.”

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