PHNOM PENH — Talks between Cambodia’s ruling party and the opposition to resolve the impasse over last year’s election have been deadlocked for months. The two sides disagree on a number of issues, most significantly reform of the National Election Committee (NEC). But signs of a thaw have emerged, and a meeting between the leaders of the two parties looks increasingly likely.
Cambodia has been in a state of political paralysis since July’s disputed general election, in which the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, or CNRP, shocked the ruling party when it won nearly half of the votes and 55 of the 123 seats in parliament.
The opposition insists it was cheated of victory by the ruling Cambodian People's Party, and has refused to seat its 55 lawmakers-elect until there is an independent investigation into alleged irregularities or a new election.
The opposition also wants to change the NEC, whose members are effectively appointed by the ruling party. The opposition wants NEC appointments to instead be subject to a two-thirds vote in parliament, giving it veto power to block members it opposes.
In a bid to step up pressure, the CNRP said in recent days that beginning in May, it will hold daily demonstrations nationwide in the run-up to district and provincial elections scheduled for May 18.
Opposition chief whip Son Chhay, the man leading the CNRP’s negotiating team, said dialogue remains the preferred option.
“So I think when we still cannot find any solution to settle the political crisis, the CNRP would be looking for working with the public to demand the ruling party to commit themselves to solve the problem. So that is a second option. But at the moment we’re still working on a political compromise or solution to the crisis. So I hope that we could reach some sort of agreement before May,” said Chhay.
Agreement might be closer than it appeared only days ago. On Tuesday, Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng indicated that a meeting between the leaders of the two parties is under discussion. It would be the first such meeting between Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy since their summit in September, which ended with a vague agreement on electoral reform.
Until now, the ruling party has dismissed the opposition’s key demands, instead drafting a list of its own requirements, including that election-monitoring NGOs be more strictly controlled. After the last round of failed talks, the ruling party's chief negotiator said his side was prepared to push ahead with its own reforms of the NEC.
However, long-time human rights activist and political commentator Ou Virak said, that sort of one-sided approach is unlikely to prove successful because the ruling party knows how close it came to losing last year’s vote.
“Well I think that’s the only way if they are to have legitimacy and prevent future election disputes as the one we have seen now. If there’s no confidence in the NEC, there’s no confidence in the election process, then you will be bound to continue repeating the impasse after every election,” said Ou.
Corruption, land grabbing, low wages and a lack of jobs are among the reasons many Cambodians voted for the opposition. Post-election demonstrations saw tens of thousands march in the capital calling for Prime Minister Hun Sen to quit - an unprecedented outcry against three decades of his rule.
In response, authorities have banned public gatherings and jailed nearly two-dozen protesters. In January, authorities shot dead at least four garment workers who were protesting for a higher minimum wage. The garment sector, with around 500,000 employees, is the country’s key industry.
Ou said the ruling party, with an eye on the Arab Spring, knows it needs to shore up its legitimacy among the Cambodian people.
“So public opinion now matters more than ever before, and I think the ruling party is going to try to seek that. Basically this is an unknown, unfamiliar territory for the ruling party where they are forced to actually care about Cambodian public opinion,” said Ou.
Although that provides the opposition with some leverage, he said, they must push for specific goals for electoral reform as well as loosening state control over radio and television outlets.
“So if they hold out for that, then that would give them a bit of a fairer playing field. It’s never going to be fair in Cambodia. But I think that will give them a bit more of a chance in the upcoming elections. I think they should go into parliament if they can get these key concessions,” said Ou.
Looking ahead, Ou Virak doesn’t believe the ruling party has the capacity to reform quickly enough to win the 2018 election fairly. But that is only half the battle for the opposition: its challenge will be to prove to the Cambodian people that it constitutes a credible alternative.