King Sets Date for First Session of Parliament

King Norodom Sihamoni on Monday announced that he would convene the first session of Parliament since July’s contested national election on September 23, a meeting the opposition CNRP is vowing to boycott in the hopes of stalling the formation of the next government.

The CNRP, which is contesting the ruling CPP’s official win, says it will boycott the first sitting of the Assembly unless the government agrees to an impartial investigation of the July 28 vote, which remains marred by unresolved reports of widespread irregularities. Lawyers and analysts say the CPP cannot legally form the next government without them.

In a letter to National Election Committee (NEC) President Im Suosdey dated Monday, King Sihamoni said he had received the committee’s official election results announced Sunday giving the CPP the win.

“I will invite all elected parliamentarians to the fifth legislature for the inaugural session on September 23, 2013, at the National Assembly,” King Siha­moni said in the letter.

King Sihamoni sent the letter from China, having left for Beijing in mid-August for a medical checkup. CPP lawmaker and Assembly spokesman Chheang Vun said he was scheduled to return on Wednesday.

“The unofficial information we have is that the King will return from China on the 11th,” he said. “The King will return to and convene [the National Assembly].”

The Constitution binds the King to convening the first session of the National Assembly within 60 days of the last election, in this case by September 28.

But dissatisfied with the NEC’s handling of its election complaints, the CNRP on Sunday confirmed that its lawmakers elected to the Assembly—55 according to the NEC—will go through with their threat to boycott the first meeting. And without them, CNRP pres­ident Sam Rainsy said Monday, any government that came of it would have no legal standing.

“Whoever attends such a meeting, I think they would violate the law, and I don’t think any reasonable person would choose to violate the law in such a way,” he said.

The CPP insists that it can hold the first meeting of the Assembly and form the next government with its 68 elected lawmakers alone.

Sok Sam Oeun, a leading human rights lawyer who heads the Cambodian Defenders Project, a legal aid NGO, had a more nuanced take. He said the King could convene the Assembly’s first meeting even if just one or two lawmakers show up.

But the Constitution says a valid Assembly must have 120 members. And without any of the CNRP’s 55 elected lawmakers there to be sworn in, Mr. Sam Oeun said there was no way for the Assembly to hit that number.

“You need 120 to be sworn in to establish the National Assembly,” he said. “If only [the CPP’s] 68 are sworn in, is the National Assembly established yet? For me, I don’t think. And if the Parliament is not yet established, that group of parliamentary members cannot make any decisions.”

The CPP says it has a way around that, too. In a speech a few days after the election, Prime Minister Hun Sen warned the opposition that the NEC could give its hard-won seats to the CPP if it went through with the boycott.

The country’s law on National Assembly elections says the NEC can redistribute the seats of one party to another, but only if the party “declares to abandon” its seats or is removed from the list of recognized political parties.

So far, neither has happened. Mr. Hun Sen argued that the CNRP will have effectively de­clared abandoning its seats with a boycott.

But lawyers, analysts and election monitors disagree with that, too.

“Does a boycott mean abandon?” said Mr. Sam Oeun. “For me, I don’t think so.”

NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha concurred.

“If the CNRP boycotts it doesn’t mean their seats are taken away, unless they declare to abandon them,” he said. “I won’t comment on Hun Sen’s speech,” he said. “It is the speech of a politician.”

Whatever happens when the National Assembly convenes, the CPP’s Mr. Vun said it was time for the CNRP to accept defeat.

“The people have chosen the CPP as the leaders,” he said. But if the opposition insisted on its boycott, he added, “they must know that the 2.9 million people who voted for the CNRP will blame them in the sixth mandate and the CPP will wait and be happy to reap the benefits.”

If the CPP and NEC did press on with forming the next government without the opposition, Mr. Sam Oeun said he saw only trouble ahead, and not just for the opposition.

“Is it [going to be] legitimate to the public opinion, and [will] the international community see it as legitimate?” he said. “If the ruling party thinks they can do it and the CNRP says they cannot, I think there will be big demonstrations and many things will happen and the people will suffer.”

The CNRP held a 20,000-strong protest against the official election results on Sunday and said it will call for even larger demonstrations in the coming days.

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