Parliamentary Seating System Questioned

Legislatures in many democracies seat their members by political party so the lawmakers can talk easily among themselves during crucial votes or debates.

But Cambodia’s National As­sembly seats its members by age, with the oldest in the front row and the youngest in the back. And while that shows a respect for age and experience consistent with Khmer tradition, political leaders say it is inef­ficient. Some party members must communicate by passing notes during parliamentary debates.

Complaints from the Sam Rainsy Party are having some effect. Monh Saphann, who chairs a commission drafting new rules for the assembly, said they may rearrange the seating by party into groups of about 15.

The Sam Rainsy Party, which has 15 members, would be one group. Funcinpec, with 43, would be split into three groups. The CPP, with 64 members, would be divided into four groups.

The groupings would be based on expertise, Monh Saphann said.

For example, legislators with experience in industry or commerce would be seated together in one group, while those skilled in social issues or education would be in another.

He said each group would select a leader, but that other members would not be barred from participating in debates.

Monh Saphann’s commission has been working to streamline assembly operations for more than a year. He would not say when the new regulations would be ready, but did say they would help the assembly work more smoothly.

The draft includes other chan­g­es. Under current law, each legislator can speak for 20 minutes on a topic; the draft will limit each group to 20 minutes. A third change governs how bills are passed. Lawmakers review bills from start to finish, going article to article or chapter to chapter.

But with bills like the new penal code expected to contain more than 2,000 articles, the new rules say the assembly can pass whole segments that deal with a specific issue, regardless of which articles or chapters are involved.

Monh Saphann said the new rules should be in place before the penal code is finished, which Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng said should be “late next year.”

Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay said the draft should also create a “shadow cabinet” to monitor government performance and require regular “grilling” or questioning of cabinet members in the presence of the prime minister.

Under the current system,  National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Prime Minister Hun Sen have informally set Thursday as the day for ministers to be grilled.

Son Chhay said some ministers don’t come when asked, and the draft should require them to do so.

He said he has posed more than 100 questions to the government about corruption, but only 30 have been answered.


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