Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy emerged from a five-hour meeting in Phnom Penh on Tuesday with a deal for the CNRP’s 55 lawmakers-elect to end their boycott of the National Assembly in exchange for an overhaul of the electoral commission, which they accuse of rigging last year’s election for the CPP.
The CNRP’s lawmakers-elect will be sworn in at the National Assembly in the coming week, according to Mr. Rainsy, where they will join 68 parliamentarians from the CPP to amend the Constitution in order to enshrine the autonomy of a new election commission.
The seven CNRP lawmakers-elect, along with one party activist, who were imprisoned last week on seemingly spurious charges of “leading an insurrection” were also released Tuesday in order to allow them to swear into the National Assembly.
A statement issued by the parties after the meeting said the new electoral commission will have nine members: four selected by the CPP, four by the CNRP and a ninth selected by consensus. The selections will be made through the National Assembly standing committee.
Mr. Rainsy said shortly after the meeting that the arrangement will be clearly detailed in the Constitution and form much of the document’s new Chapter 15.
“The Constitution will specify how the ninth [member] will be chosen. The CNRP will approve at least four, the CPP must approve four and the ninth member must be approved by both parties,” he said.
The opposition leader discounted the possibility of further discord between the parties over the selection of the ninth and final member.
“Among so many people it would [be] very strange, very unusual and unlikely that we could not agree on one candidate because the ninth candidate will be the common candidate of both parties,” he said.
The present National Election Committee (NEC) is dominated by members of the CPP and has been routinely criticized by independent election monitors for its failures to hold fair elections.
Interior Ministry Secretary of State Prum Sokha, who was at Tuesday’s meeting and has led technical talks with the CNRP in recent months, said his party was not concerned about a deadlock in selecting the ninth member of the new commission.
“If the process is stuck by not having consensus on any one candidate, the existing mechanism, the existing NEC, shall proceed normally. This is the agreement. This is to protect against deadlock,” he said.
Mr. Sokha also said the seven CNRP lawmakers-elect imprisoned last week after opposition supporters on July 15 violently retaliated against Daun Penh district security guards will now be protected against any prosecution.
“They will be released temporarily, on bail, to let them swear in, and then the National Assembly will consider their immunity and ask the court to drop the case. But we need to get through that legal process,” he said.
CNRP lawmakers-elect Mu Sochua, Keo Phirum, Men Sothavrin, Ho Vann, Real Camerin, Nuth Rumduol and Long Ry, and party activist Oeur Narith, were released from prison just before 5 p.m. Tuesday and led a motorcade back to CNRP headquarters in Meanchey district.
CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann declined to specify when the party’s lawmakers would swear in, but confirmed they would do so before the members of the new electoral commission are chosen.
“We have to amend the Constitution and amend the law. In order to amend the Constitution we have to have the meeting,” he said.
A two-thirds majority of the 123-member National Assembly is required to amend the Constitution, requiring the CNRP’s participation.
Mr. Rainsy, who was banned from running in the last election and is not a lawmaker-elect, said he is seeking a meeting with King Norodom Sihamoni this week to request that his lawmakers be sworn in.
“There is a schedule. It’s not very precise, but I think I can say that later this week, we would go to meet with the Queen and the King,” he said. “The King may grant us an audience this week. After that week, one, two or three days later, we will go to swear in at the Royal Palace.”
Mr. Sokha of the CPP said he believed that the CNRP’s 55 lawmakers-elect would be sworn in at a special ceremony on Friday.
Under the new agreement, the CNRP will hold the chairmanships of five committees in the National Assembly, including a new anti-corruption committee, while the CPP will hold the five others.
The CPP will retain the position of National Assembly president and the second deputy president, but the CNRP will appoint the first deputy president. Eng Chhay Eang, who will swear in as an opposition lawmaker for Kandal province, said CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha will be selected by the party to become National Assembly first vice president.
“In the hierarchy of the party, His Excellency [Mr. Rainsy] is the prime ministerial candidate and Kem Sokha is the candidate for the presidency of the National Assembly,” he said. “Therefore, when there is the position in the National Assembly, Kem Sokha has to get it.”
According to the arrangement, the CPP will hold on to a slim majority of the National Assembly standing committee, which sets the legislative body’s agenda and comprises the National Assembly president, two deputy presidents and the 10 committee chairs.
The permanent committee in the lead-up to the last election expelled all the lawmakers from the Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party from parliament after the parties merged into the CNRP, citing internal rules banning lawmakers from being members of two parties at once.
The united opposition then surprised the long-ruling CPP in the disputed July 2013 election, whose anniversary falls on Monday, picking up 55 seats and launching months of anti-government demonstrations in Phnom Penh calling for an election investigation or a fresh election.
Under the agreement struck Tuesday, however, the election will not be moved up significantly, which marks a major concession from the CNRP. The party had been demanding since December that the next election be held much earlier than July 2018, when it is presently scheduled.
At a press conference after the negotiations ended, Mr. Sokha of the CPP said that the date would be changed slightly.
“The two parties agree to reset the date for the election in the future, but not for a vote before the end of the mandate,” Mr. Sokha said.
The CPP has since September said that it wishes to move the election only to February 2018, and Mr. Rainsy had indicated on his Facebook page late on Sunday night that the CNRP accepted the date.
Mr. Sovann, the CNRP spokesman, said the opposition was pleased with the concessions it had drawn from the CPP.
“We believe that from now on there will be checks and balances on power, with the ruling party and the other parties…with seats in the National Assembly making decisions and working together.”