The Senate proposal that emerged from last week’s summit has provoked mixed feelings from political and legal analysts, who say it could be a dangerous solution to Cambodia’s sharply factionalized political impasse.
Some analysts this week lauded a parliamentary upper house as an effective and creative solution to four months of deadlock, while others warned it is a short-term solution that could create more problems.
In addition, they predict that the body will dilute the power of a key political chip in negotiations, the powerful National Assembly presidency, much sought-after by Funcinpec to balance a CPP-dominated Cabinet, to be led by sole prime minister Hun Sen.
Both parties on Monday appointed a working group, as agreed to in the summit, to hammer out the details of the Senate before it is presented to the Assembly for approval.
The Senate was a CPP suggestion to keep party president Chea Sim in the role of acting head of state while satisfying Funcinpec’s demand that its president, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, hold the Assembly presidency, analysts said. Chea Sim also will chair the Senate.
They worried that political leaders continue to rely on creating co-ministerships or political institutions because they cannot agree to a simpler compromise.
“Our country should not be based on the principle of creating power just for the sake of creating power,” said a Cambodian legal expert, who spoke on condition of anonymity on Monday.
Specifically, analysts pointed to 1993, when King Norodom Sihanouk and the parties created three co-ministerships, co-commanders in chief and two prime ministers to soothe tensions over the election result.
The creation of a Senate, while possibly complicated, also drew some approval from analysts on several counts, including the ingenuity and will of Cambodia’s leaders to overcome a political impasse.
“Certainly I think the idea is good in that it helped contribute to the end of the political logjam,” Kao Kim Hourn, executive director of the Cambodian Institute for Cooperation and Peace, said Saturday. “That’s an important fact to consider.”
Nonetheless, the complexities of creating such a political institution have analysts concerned.
A range of looming issues could be problematic, including the possible politicization of the Senate’s appointments, the need to iron out its functions, and the likelihood its presence will slow down the legislative process.
“We believe we’re solving one problem, but we could create many more,” Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, said Tuesday.
The creation of the Senate will require a constitutional amendment and perhaps alterations to established articles. Additionally, its members will need to be paid from government coffers.
“A lot of salaries, and we already have difficulty to pay government employees,” Chea Vannath, director of the Center for Social Development, said Monday. “This will just add more burden on the national revenue.”
One government insider said the Senate is a place to put older, less sophisticated party officials who are being pushed out of government jobs by younger, more regionally-aware counterparts. And an Asian diplomat called it a “blessing in disguise” that gives the government a place to stick less active career politicians.
Political agendas will shape debate in the working groups and at the Assembly when officials attempt to finalize the Senate’s powers.
“This is going to be a major debate, how much power should the Senate have in comparison to the National Assembly,” Kao Kim Hourn said.
Nothing is final until the National Assembly approves a constitutional change, but analysts predicted the Senate would dilute the strength of the 122-member Assembly and both its powerful agenda-setting Permanent Committee and presidency.
In fact, the government insider said the body’s primary purpose, as seen by CPP leaders, is to make sure that Prince Ranariddh as National Assembly president will not have the authority to hold legislation hostage.
The body will provide one more check and balance in passing laws, but will slow the legislative process, analysts said. “Sometimes it’s good if there are a lot of stages to effect legislation but it might be harmful because it will take longer,” said the legal expert.
Based on an outline of its powers released during last week’s two-day summit, the Senate will not have the power to change or veto bills. But its powers of review appear close, maybe too close, to that of the nine-member Constitutional Council, which judges laws for constitutionality in cases of disputes after they are passed.
“It’s troublesome and cumbersome,” said Lao Mong Hay, who questions the need for the new upper house.
It appears King Sihanouk will appoint the original mandate of the Senate, which Funcinpec negotiator Pok Than said could have about 50 to 60 members, or close to half of the National Assembly.
While Chea Sim will chair the Senate, Funcinpec nominees will fill the two vice president slots.
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