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Opposition Gaining Power in Legislature, Analysts Say

Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, second from right, shakes hands with the main opposition party leader Sam Rainsy, left, of Cambodia National Rescue Party, as Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng, second from left, looks on after a meeting in Senate headquarter, file photo.

As part of political negotiations, the opposition party will be allowed a minority leader in parliament—a system analysts say could strengthen the checks and balances in the government.

The legislative branch has traditionally been considered weaker than the executive, with the National Assembly stacked with supporters of Prime Minister Hun Sen and his Cambodian People’s Party.

But with opposition leader Sam Rainsy now with some legislative power in the Assembly, that could change.

Koul Panha, executive director of the election-monitoring group Comfrel, said the creation of the minority leader position signaled official recognition of the opposition’s role in parliament and should be written into the internal rules of the Assembly.

That would help strengthen a system that is currently weak, he said. Currently, ruling party officials ignore calls from parliament to appear for questioning on policies and decisions—sometimes for fear of retribution by leaders of their own party. The Assembly also has little say in the national budget. Meanwhile the CPP goes forward with passing laws for its own benefit.

Having an opposition with a formal role could improve that, Koul Panha said.

Hang Puthea, head of the election monitor Nicfec, said an Assembly with a minority leader position will give the opposition more voice in parliament. “Democracy means respecting the majority and paying attention to the minority,” he said. A minority leader can “add more weight to balance between the minority and majority,” he said.

This is the first time Cambodia has enacted such a system—the product of a deal struck in July to end a nearly yearlong political deadlock, following 2013’s election.

Chheang Von, a senior CPP lawmaker, said the new system signaled a change in the culture of the National Assembly. “We are unable to dialogue unless we have a partner to do it with,” he said.

The CPP leads the government and has the prime minister and his deputies. A minority leader, with rank enough to have top-level discussions, will help the opposition. That’s important, he said.

Sam Rainsy, head of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, will fill the role of minority leader. In an interview last week, he said the new system is creating a “culture of dialogue” between the two sides. “We’re abandoning the old behavior, in which we were destroying each other,” he said.

The new system will mean discussions on key national issues, he said.

Schanley Kuch an independent political analyst in Maryland, said the new system could work as well as the US system, where the Congress holds much power and can call for the president and other executive officers to answer questions.