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National Assembly Off Balance: Analysts

Cambodian politicians should write a law for power-sharing formulas to replace negotiations that do not reflect democratic principals, analysts said recently, following a structuring of the National Assembly that puts vast control of all committees with the ruling party.

The Cambodian People's Party will head all nine of the National Assembly committees, leaving little room for opposition and descent, especially in the Steering Committee, which is comprised of committee heads and determines the legislative agenda.

On Friday the opposition Sam Rainsy and Human Rights parties refused to join any of the committees, leaving 63 of 65 committee seats to the CPP, with only one seat each for Funcinpec and the Norodom Ranariddh Party.

The new National Assembly makes it harder for checks and balances, lawmakers said.

Politicians should share power in the National Assembly in proportion to their seats, said Thun Saray, president of the rights group Adhoc. Opposition lawmakers should be given important roles in committees to ensure a system of checks and balances in the legislative branch, he said.

The practice of power-sharing through negotiation should be stopped, he said.

"The critical problem is that there is no such law that clearly states this," he said. "It depends on political compromise, and they share power. But when no compromise is reached, the political party with the majority voice grabs all the power."

The negotiation of National Assembly power-sharing is "a constant disease in our country," he said, adding a Khmer expression that means, "He who laughs last, laughs best."

Without a law, he said, parties can collude to eliminate lawmaking roles for their opponents, leading to continual problems in the future.

Further complicating the problem this year was a boycott of the National Assembly's first session, following national elections that saw a sweeping CPP win, 90 of 123 parliamentary seats.

The Sam Rainsy and Human Rights parties both stayed away from an initial National Assembly session, failing to propose candidates for committee heads and handing them to the ruling party.

National Assembly President Heng Samrin told VOA Khmer in an interview that the CPP had not sought to keep the opposition out of committee leadership, but the actions of the opposition parties had meant CPP dominance by default.

"In fact, they boycotted and denied the election results," he said. "They didn't go to the Assembly meeting, so how could we give them positions."

The Sam Rainsy Party's 26 lawmakers and the Human Rights Party's three can still seek positions in all nine committees, he said, adding that CPP lawmakers were often critical of government policies in the same way the opposition is.

"We didn't deny you," he said of the opposition. "There are positions as members of the commissions. The Assembly is democratic only when you are president or chairmen? You have rights to inquire, to question, in the Assembly too. If you won't, it's up to you."

SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann, who in the previous National Assembly was the head of the committee on interior and defense, said the whole National Assembly, not only the opposition, needed to have goodwill in order to protect checks and balances.

Previous National Assemblies saw the Steering Committee move important legislation away from opposition-led and into CPP-headed committees, he said.

"The permanent committee was overwhelmed by the CPP and often diverted proposed bills that were supposed to be reviewed by the Interior Committee over the Legislative and Justice Committee," he said. "This was politically motivated, because my committee would have amended it to a better bill, if it came through my committee."

The law on elections and the National Election Committee, for example, was proposed by the Ministry of Interior and should have been reviewed by his committee, Yim Sovann said. Instead, it was moved through the Legislative and Justice Committee.

Still, he said, with the opposition at the helm of two committees, "we controlled checks and balances to some degree."

In the present National Assembly, "there is no chance for democracy," he said.

CPP lawmaker Chiem Yeap said the previous National Assembly had reasons for moving the election bill through other committees, at the discretion of the Steering Committee.

The CPP-dominated National Assembly was able to preserve checks and balances because it is multi-party, he said.

Yim Sovann may have disapproved of the bill's review, Chiem Yeap said, "but the minority respects the majority in a democracy."