King Norodom Sihamoni presided over the opening session of Cambodia’s National Assembly on Monday morning, despite calls from the opposition CNRP for him to delay the convening of parliament.
He was joined by Prime Minister Hun Sen and 67 other CPP members of parliament, who were scheduled to be sworn in during a ceremony this afternoon at the Royal Palace.
Outside the assembly, the King posed for photographs with the CPP lawmakers, outfitted in traditional white shirts and orange pants, along with Senate president Chea Sim and dozens of diplomats, including the ambassadors of the U.S., European Union and Japan.
Civil society groups and hundreds of monks have lobbied King Sihamoni over the past week not to open parliament until leaders of the country’s ruling and opposition parties have reached a solution to breach the present political deadlock.
Truong Mealy, a former director of the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk’s Royal Cabinet who said he has advised King Sihamoni in the past week, said on Sunday the King was “condemned” to convene Parliament despite the opposition’s protest.
“We are all condemned to follow what is written in the Constitution, because we want a country with law and order,” said Mr. Mealy following a meeting between advisers to the monarchy.
He added that he and other “defenders of the monarchy” understood that the move would be unpopular among opposition supporters calling for the first session of parliament to be pushed back.
Mr. Mealy, also a senior adviser to the National Assembly, said that with the CPP and the CNRP having made little progress in their negotiations since the disputed national election was held on July 28, the King had no choice but to abide by the country’s Constitution, which demands that parliament is convened within 60 days of the election.
“It is not [in] the best [interests of the monarchy], but better than not [convening parliament]. You have to calm down one side and then calm down the other side,” he added.
“We wish very much the CPP will not take advantage of loopholes. It is very regrettable but what can we do?” he said.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy argued in a letter to King Sihamoni on Friday that the Constitution actually called for the National Assembly to sit within 60 days of election results being finalized, not voting day, a reading that has been supported by legal experts.
The CPP, however, has been adamant in its interpretation of the Constitution, claiming that the National Assembly must be formed within 60 days of the July 28 ballot.
The CNRP has promised to boycott parliament unless the CPP offers a suitable solution to appease the almost 3 million voters who cast their ballots for the opposition.
Prince Sisowath Thomico, a former adviser to both King Sihamoni and the late King Father, who unsuccessfully ran as a National Assembly candidate for the CNRP said he believed that the CPP had forced the King to take what could be perceived as a partisan position.
“I think it goes along with the strategy of the CPP, to divide the King from the people and the people from the King,” he said.
Prince Thomico said that if the CPP goes ahead with sitting in the National Assembly the ruling party would be denying a legitimate role in government for the CNRP.
“[I]f a government is formed by National Assembly without elected members of the opposition, what will be the freedom of the opposition to express itself in parliament or otherwise?” he asked.
Independent political analysts said that the King was faced with a huge predicament when deciding whether or not to preside over today’s session of parliament.
By inaugurating a one-party National Assembly, people may believe the “CPP and Royal Palace are the same and the country will be divided into two sides,” said political analyst Kem Ley.
Still, by pushing ahead with forming a National Assembly without the CNRP, the CPP may ultimately be hurting itself as Mr. Hun Sen has long used a respected and neutral monarch to legitimize his rule of the country, said independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay.
“It is in the interests of the CPP to have a King with high stature for the stability of the country, for the unity of the country. And then since it [the CPP] is ruling the country, any blessing from the King with that kind of higher stature would consolidate its legitimacy,” he said.
Mr. Mong Hay noted that then-King Sihanouk, faced with a similar situation in 2003 when both the Sam Rainsy Party and Funcinpec refused to join a coalition with the CPP, said that he would abdicate before presiding over a disputed National Assembly.
In July 2004, after more than 11 months of political deadlock, Funcinpec, led by Prince Norodom Ranariddh, finally decided to join the CPP in a coalition government.
In reply to a letter regarding the new government’s legality, King Sihanouk, then in self-imposed exile in North Korea, wrote: “I have no power or ability to change or help. I will accept the mistake if I have made the mistake.”
King Sihamoni could have “follow[ed] in his father’s footsteps as in 2003, when the King Father refused [to convene the National Assembly] point blank,” said Mr. Mong Hay.
Mr. Mealy, the former Royal Cabinet director, said that he believed the wisdom of King Sihamoni’s decision would ultimately be recognized by politicians, and their supporters, on both sides of the present dispute.
“The people will understand…that the king could not do otherwise. We cannot disturb the water further,” he added.