Boycotting lawmakers brand the $2.6 billion budget ‘illegal’
Despite a boycott by opposition parties, the National Assembly yesterday voted to adopt a $2.6 billion budget for 2012, which will allow the government to borrow a record $1.1 billion from foreign lenders.
All of the 86 lawmakers present—which included Defense Minister Tea Banh, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong, and Interior Minister Sar Kheng—voted to pass the five-chapter law.
Lawmakers of the ruling CPP, along with the NRP and Funcinpec parties, voted for the budget, while opposition lawmakers from the Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party boycotted the vote over concerns that there was insufficient debate over the decision to borrow an additional $1.1 billion in loans.
Without opposition input, the passage of the national budget—the largest yet—took barely two hours as CPP lawmakers took turns echoing compliments on the government’s economic policies and criticizing the opposition parties for opposing the budget.
“The [committee] determined that the draft law complies with Cambodian law and administrative procedure,” said CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap, who is also chair of the Assembly’s Commission on Economy, Finance, Banking and Audit, before leading off the debate.
The boycott from opposition parties comes at a moment when there is much confusion over how much debt Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government has taken on board.
Last month, CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said that the country’s debt stood at $7 billion, or 63 percent of last year’s gross domestic product, a figure that was disputed by Mr Hun Sen, who has since announced that the debt totaled only $2 billion. Then, the Finance Ministry earlier this month said the debt stood at $3.3 million.
Like many of the lawmakers present at yesterday’s session, Mom Chimhuy, chair of the Education, Religious Affairs, Culture, and Tourism Committee, offered abject support.
“I would like to completely support this,” he said, adding that the opposition party is “dreaming” if they think the Cambodian government could see a debt crisis like that of Europe.
“It is within our power that we can urge our economy to grow. We have the ability to borrow and turn it into economic growth,” he said.
Mr Chimhuy’s words came on the heels of pointed criticism of the draft law by SRP lawmakers, who slammed the loan package, claiming drafts failed to include enough information on the loan terms to approve them, and warning that such a large loan package could plunge the nation into unmanageable debt.
The SRP then spent the better part of a week promising to invalidate Parliament’s ability to pass laws by resigning several of their members of Parliament and dropping the number of lawmakers below the constitutionally required 120. Neither the plan, which an analyst said was based on a misinterpretation of the Constitution, nor yesterday’s boycott at the Assembly managed to derail the vote.
At a news conference at SRP headquarters, SRP members defended their interpretation of the Constitution and called the Assembly’s vote illegal.
“The debate today was illegal and the Assembly unconstitutional,” said SRP parliamentarian and spokesman Yim Sovann.
“We are boycotting forever the debates at the National Assembly so long as the land confiscation from villagers continues and the government fails to solve it,” he added. “We do not care about our [salary] payment.”
Spokesman for the HRP, Pol Ham, said his party held similar views concerning the law but intended to join future debates.
“We did not attend this meeting because we did not support the 2012 budget,” he said.
At the vote, CPP lawmakers at times took turns bashing the opposition’s analysis of the draft law.
“The development debt that we are borrowing on is not a risky debt,” said CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun.
“The risky loan is one where they [the government] loans to people via the treasury…and then they cannot pay back the debt. The second is the bankruptcy of the government,” he said. “Cambodia will not have that kind of issue in the future because our government is borrowing to construct infrastructure and develop the national economy.”
Mr Vun then blasted the opposition, claiming they were trying to prevent the government from aiding the country’s poorest.
Echoing Mr Vun’s words, Finance Minister Keat Chhon called the opposition parliamentarians “cheat politicians,” saying they lied about the risks involved.
“We believe that Cambodia can control its own debt regarding the debt ratio—which can be up to 40 [percent of the GDP]. If we compare the current debt, including the toxic debt from previously, our debt-ratio is only 29 percent,” said Mr Chhon.
Speaking by phone after the vote, Kuol Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said that in ignoring the boycott and ratifying the law, the National Assembly broke no law. But, he added, going ahead with the vote could lead to a “lack of credibility,” sowing doubt among donors and lenders.
“Debate must take place because this law will affect the people and the whole nation. It needs a process of dialogue from many political parties’ lawmakers; it is a national budget, not a government budget,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Eang Mengleng)