This week lawmakers from Cambodia’s opposition party are being voted onto 10 parliamentary commissions. This is a key part of a political deal in which the opposition finally agreed to take its 55 seats in parliament, ending its year-long boycott over alleged vote-rigging in the general election.
The proceedings at parliament are an important step on the road to political normality.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) boycotted parliament for months following the July 2013 general election in which it came close to unseating Prime Minister Hun Sen’s Cambodian People's Party.
The CNRP has long claimed that the ruling party cheated its way to a narrow victory. The official result was the opposition won 55 seats in the 123-seat National Assembly, nearly double what it held before. The ruling party lost 22 seats, and now holds 68.
Cambodia’s political stalemate lasted nearly a year during which time leader Hun Sen levied a characteristically tough response: public gatherings were banned; several opposition MPs-elect and their supporters were locked up on charges of insurrection; and government thugs administered numerous beatings at protests.
But last month, the two main parties struck a deal for the opposition lawmakers to return in exchange for, among other things, a greater say in the makeup of the Election Commission. Since then, the mood has relaxed. Even Freedom Park, the public space in Phnom Penh that Hun Sen closed for months, has reopened. Both parties are now looking towards the next general election, which is due in 2018.
Opposition party chief whip Son Chhay says he is optimistic for the future.
“This time around it has changed so much. I think both parties cannot afford to do what they please any more - the public is very powerful. I think they are watching the two parties very closely since the two parties are very much equal in support in this country, they have to respond to the public more than they just do what they want. In that regard, the performance in the parliament would be so important, and the deal to allow the opposition to do their job properly - it will greatly help. I believe it’s a very good beginning,” said Chhay.
Voting by MPs to approve the new composition of parliament’s 10 committees started on Tuesday and should conclude Wednesday, added Chhay, who has himself been appointed vice-chair of the finance commission.
The two parties agreed that the CNRP would lead and control the agriculture commission as well as women’s affairs, education, human rights and anti-corruption. The ruling party will lead and control the other five commissions including finance, defense and justice.
Opposition members will also take six of the 13 positions on parliament’s standing committee, the body that sets the legislative agenda and oversees parliament’s internal rules.
Chhay said changing the internal rules - including giving commissions the power to summon ministers - combined with the opposition’s control of the commissions on agriculture, health and others should result in improved national institutions.
“Now we are holding all these committees. At least as [regards] the chairing of these committees, our members would be able to put more pressure on ministers in these areas to be more accountable to their work and hoping that they will serve the people better,” said Chhay.
On Tuesday, legislators also voted that CNRP Vice-President Kem Sokha become parliament’s first deputy president, making him the most senior opposition figure in the legislature.
Also Tuesday, the Phnom Penh Post reported that opposition leader Sam Rainsy would not take on any commission positions. Instead, the veteran politician and MP will advise some of the less-experienced legislators in his party.