Column: Rule by Fear
Published: August 20, 2008
Hong Kong, China — The ruling Cambodian People’s Party won a landslide victory in the country’s general election on July 27, claiming 90 out of 123 seats in the National Assembly, the lower house in the bicameral parliamentary system – although final results will not be announced till September.
This party almost wiped out its long-standing coalition partner, the Funcinpec party, which saw its seats reduced from 26 to two. Two newly formed parties, the Norodom Ranariddh Party and the Human Rights Party, took two and three seats respectively, while the opposition Sam Rainsy Party increased its seats from 24 to 26.
At first all four small parties rejected the results of the election, alleging it was “rigged” when names of legitimate voters were deleted from electoral rolls while illegitimate voters were allowed to vote. Apparently attracted by the winning party’s offer of government positions, Funcinpec soon changed its mind and accepted the election results.
Later on, the Norodom Ranariddh Party also changed its mind, apparently in exchange for the winning party’s support for a royal pardon for its leader, Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who faces an 18-month jail sentence for breach of trust and who has been living in self-imposed exile abroad.
The other two parties, Sam Rainsy and Human Rights, have however continued to reject the election results and have filed complaints against election irregularities. They have also threatened to boycott the opening of the new Parliament.
Hun Sen, the incumbent prime minister and vice president of the winning Cambodian People’s Party, has angrily reacted to this threat and has warned that the seats of the boycotting parties would be taken away from them and given to other parties, although there are no constitutional provisions for such a measure.
In the midst of this post-election conflict, it has been announced that the King of Cambodia will act according to the country’s Constitution and summon all the lawmakers-elect to the first meeting of the new Parliament on Sept. 24. The Sam Rainsy Party has said that its lawmakers-elect will not be sworn in and take up their seats until its complaints have been properly addressed.
As is widely known, the winning party – the former communist party that has ruled Cambodia for over 20 years – has complete control over all of the country’s institutions from top to bottom, including the two adjudicating mechanisms for election irregularities, that is, the National Election Committee, which is also an election management board, and the Constitutional Council.
It is very unlikely that the Sam Rainsy Party and the Human Rights Party will have their complaints addressed properly by these two institutions.
In the meantime the ruling Cambodian People’s Party seems set to prevent these two parties from playing any active role in the new Parliament, especially the Sam Rainsy Party whose leader, Sam Rainsy, has had continued acrimonious relations with Prime Minister Hun Sen, who is known as “the strongman of Cambodia.”
If the ruling party uses its overwhelming majority to forge ahead with the marginalization of the opposition, the Cambodian system of government will evolve into an elected dictatorship – all the more so when its judiciary, as is also well known, is under political control. With command over Parliament and control of all the country’s institutions, the ruling party can, as it has done before, enact any law and amend the Constitution to remove all obstacles to its rule.
This development is a break from the practice of the previous Parliament, in which the opposition Sam Rainsy Party had 24 seats and an important role as chair of two out of nine parliamentary committees. The new situation is not conducive to the development of the liberal democracy Cambodia has embraced in its Constitution.
With the absence of an opposition role, the new Parliament cannot be seen as representing the entire nation, only the majority of its citizens who voted for the Cambodian People’s Party. This Parliament will lose its status and role as one of the three branches of government.
Checks and balances between these three branches and the separation of powers will completely disappear. Cambodia will then become practically a one-party state, a development which is not friendly to democracy, the rule of law and human rights.
In order to avoid all these negative developments, Cambodia’s new Parliament should continue the practice of its predecessor. In order to represent the entire nation it must allow the opposition parties to be an integral part of the Parliament and assume the chairmanship of some of its nine committees, so the opposition can play an active role in the governance of the nation.
(Lao Mong Hay is a senior researcher at the Asian Human Rights Commission in Hong Kong. He was previously director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and a visiting professor at the University of Toronto in 2003. In 1997, he received an award from Human Rights Watch and the Nansen Medal in 2000 from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.)