King Norodom Sihamoni presided over a nearly half-empty opening session of the National Assembly on Monday as all 55 elected lawmakers of the opposition CNRP followed through with their threat to boycott parliament to protest disputed results of July’s national election.
As promised, the CNRP lawmakers spent the day in Siem Reap City where they dismissed the opening session as being unconstitutional and deemed the country to be operating as a single-party state.
Analysts and election monitors also questioned the new Assembly’s legitimacy and feared more public unrest if CPP lawmakers press ahead with passing laws.
Still, King Sihamoni and the 68 elected lawmakers of Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP pressed on with the opening session with much of the country’s foreign diplomatic corps in attendance, including some Western delegations that were critical of the way the election was conducted and have refrained from endorsing the official results.
Taking to his gilded chair at the front of the Assembly hall, King Sihamoni avoided any mention of the 55 absent opposition members and welcomed the 68 CPP lawmakers.
“This inaugural session of the Fifth Legislature is a new chapter in the history of our legislative body, with your Samdechs and Excellencies…expending and exhausting every physical and mental effort to serve the nation by putting the nation’s interests before any others,” the King said.
“It is my hope that this National Assembly of the Fifth Legislature will proceed smoothly and fruitfully fulfill its roles and duties in the best interest of the Cambodian motherland and people.”
After handshakes and photos with King Sihamoni outside the National Assembly, the CPP lawmakers returned to the Assembly hall, where Heng Samrin, the Assembly’s last president and likely its next, read out the names of all 123 elected lawmakers, which included those absent from the CNRP.
“I solemnly declare that the names of the elected lawmakers submitted by the National Election Committee to the National Assembly have their mandates approved on September 23, 2013,” he said. “I would like to congratulate you.”
The 68 CPP lawmakers then approved their new internal rules with a quick show of hands and agreed to return today to vote on the Assembly’s new leadership, the next prime minister and his cabinet.
Earlier in the morning, King Sihamoni issued a Royal Decree nominating Prime Minister Hun Sen to resume his role and inviting him to form the next government. In a letter to the King obtained Monday, Mr. Hun Sen graciously accepted.
In stark contrast to the pomp and ceremony occurring in the capital, the opposition CNRP put out a fiery statement from Siem Reap City dismissing the opening session as an illegitimate sham.
“The opening of the first session of the National Assembly without the presence of the elected lawmakers from the CNRP is an act that violates the Constitution,” the party said. “The National Assembly formed today is a single party National Assembly that doesn’t represent the entire Khmer nation, meaning it violates democracy, freedom and pluralist principles and drives Cambodia once again to dictatorship.”
From Siem Reap, CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the opposition’s elected lawmakers would start trickling back to Phnom Penh today but still had no plans to take their seats until they settled their differences over the disputed election results at the negotiating table.
Two days of talks between Mr. Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy last week stalled after making modest progress and have yet to resume.
“There is no unity, no solidarity, no justice, so the CPP must reconsider what it has done so far,” Mr. Sovann said of Monday’s opening session of parliament. “The best option is for the CPP to come back to negotiations.”
The CPP’s Prak Sokhon, a secretary of state at the Council of Ministers who took part in last week’s talks, said that he was unaware of any imminent plans to continue talks with the opposition.
He also dismissed the opposition’s rejection of the Assembly’s opening session.
“If it doesn’t comply with the law or the Constitution, why did His Majesty come to chair the meeting and why did all the ambassadors to Cambodia come as honored guests?” Mr. Sokhon asked.
The U.S. Embassy has been highly critical of the elections and quickly issued a statement after Monday’s opening of parliament to insist that Ambassador William Todd’s participation in the ceremony was not an endorsement of any results or party.
“We believe that a functioning National Assembly requires the participation of both major political parties,” the embassy said, while also calling on the two parties to return to negotiations and repeating its call for a transparent review of election irregularities.
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said the embassy’s letter would not stop the government, and the mostly government-aligned media, from making the foreign delegates’ presence at the ceremony look like an endorsement.
“The media of the ruling party will do that, to make people think…they come to legitimate the National Assembly and the outcome of the election,” he said.
Cambodians who see foreign ambassadors shaking hands with the CPP lawmakers on television will believe they have endorsed the contentious results, Mr. Panha said.
Political analysts and lawyers are split on whether the Assembly is a legitimate law-making body without the opposition’s 55 lawmakers.
“You have two parties but only a single party goes ahead…. It does not follow the spirit of the Constitution,” Mr. Panha said. “In terms of legitimacy it’s very controversial.”
Lao Mong Hay, a political analyst and law professor, called it “one of the saddest days in our history.”
“It’s not legitimate, it’s just common sense,” he said of the new parliament.
“The National Assembly is the depository of the people’s power…. But at the moment the power deposited with the National Assembly is just 55 percent,” Mr. Mong Hay said, referring to the CPP’s share of the 123 seats.
Any laws the Assembly goes on to pass, he added, may be “legal but not legitimate.”
Mr. Mong Hay said he also worried that the new government might have a tough time enforcing such laws and that they could lead to more unrest, maybe not right away but eventually.
“People will not respect those laws and force may have to be used to enforce those laws,” he warned. “The opposition and the people will continue to protest in one form or another.”
Independent analyst Kem Ley called the new Assembly “illegal completely” and also foresaw more unrest unless the CPP and CNRP settled their differences before the Assembly started passing laws.
“The people will fight and a strong movement will happen with nationwide demonstrations if the government does not bring the opposition on board,” he said.
The CNRP has attracted tens of thousands of supporters to protests in central Phnom Penh in recent weeks to demand an independent investigation of the election. The party says it may call for more protests soon.