Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Parliamentary Boycott and Is It Working?

It’s been almost 9 months since the election here in Cambodia and 7 months since the constituting session of the Assembly. As we all know the opposition party is continuing to boycott the parliament stating that the election was rigged and therefore they cannot recognize the results. If they were to take their seats this would be tantamount to recognition of the election results.

Constitutional scholars are not in agreement on the interpretation of the constitution with respect to this boycott and whether the two sessions held so far, and during which laws were passed, were legal under the constitution. They are not even agreeing about the article that says the assembly consists of at least 120 members. As in all such cases a lot has to do with semantics. The binding text is in Khmer, which unfortunately after many years of studying I still can’t read, so consequently I am not sure what the original text says. The English translation simply uses the word ‘comprises’. I am not a legal scholar, of course, but from my education and experience in the West, both Europe and the U.S., this would signify and give only the total members of the assembly to be elected. This is independent of the actual sitting members at any one time. Sometimes laws are passed with a tiny fraction of the elected members present.

 If an elected member does not take the oath of office for whatever reason this would amount to an intrinsic resignation (or would it?). Under normal circumstances the next candidate in line on the party’s list moves up to take that seat. If no other candidate is available because the entire party boycotts the assembly, this would normally result in a new election.

However, the constitution also states that the Assembly cannot be dissolved before the end of the mandate unless the government was voted out twice within a 12-month period. What does that exactly mean? Western democracies have a vote of confidence. If the prime minister loses it, a new election is called. This ‘voting out’ could be construed as a vote of confidence. But for this to be held one needs the opposition present. So the prime minister and his government cannot be ‘voted out’. Consequently, the National Assembly cannot be dissolved. The next question then is whether the current Assembly is legal under the constitution or not.

The CPP maintains that it won the election, their members took the oath and the King opened the 5th mandate of the National Assembly, thereby legitimizing the composure of the assembly even without the opposition party’s members having taken their oath or being present. Here the interpretation becomes a little abstract. At the time during the constituting session and the oath was administered the opposition members-elect did not show up. But the ruling party’s members all took their oath. The majority of the members are, therefore, legitimate. The Assembly as such would appear to be fully functional.

As mentioned above the opposition party’s members not only did not show up they even refused to take their oath at a later time. This is tantamount to an abandonment of the election results of each of their districts. The conclusion from this is that the candidate who won the district changes from the original winner (CNRP) to the loser, in all of those cases (at least to my knowledge) a CPP member. So the prime minister’s contention to fill the seats with their own party’s candidates is not entirely without merit. In my view the CNRP really runs this risk if they continue with their current strategy.  So what we have here on the surface is a functional parliament, 55 members-elect abandoned their seats, in fact resigned. In any other democracy this would automatically lead to a new election. It is a rather unique situation due to the incomplete article in the constitution. The authors should have included the vote of confidence. De facto, no matter how you look at it from a legal standpoint, the current government is a care-taker government, and this may last another four and a half years. The opposition does not gain one inch of ground or achieve anything of their political agenda by holding on to their intransigent stance.

Now the other question is whether the election was valid. Neutral observers say it was flawed. First, the opposition party was not given enough media campaign opportunities. Most media in Cambodia are controlled, at least indirectly, by the ruling party. (It is, therefore, all the more surprising that the CNRP did win 55 seats, up from a meager 24 plus 1 in the past election.) Second, voter registrations were really dubious. Third, many voters were barred from voting to begin with, either by not having been registered, or after being registered subsequently being dropped from the voting list. Sometimes, reports say voters were even turned away more or less forcibly from polling stations. Nevertheless, major governments, among them France and Australia, recognized the elections by congratulating the prime minister for his victory. That in itself is not legally binding, of course, but it goes to show that the international support the CNRP is so loudly clamoring for is just not there. Others, like the U. S., did not officially recognize the election but they deal with the results as if it were legitimate; for instance, they did not recall their ambassador, even temporarily. The opposition claims it is not business as usual any more, but after 7 months one cannot but say it is. Bottom line: even if it was flawed and partially rigged, the election must be considered valid. In comparison, a prime example was the 2000 U. S. presidential election. People are still arguing about the legality of the result. But in the end the results stood and political life went on. Though the circumstances are different here the fact remains that the government is in place and continues with their business .

Whatever goes through their heads, it should have become clear to the CNRP leadership that this boycott is counterproductive. The previous King was able to resolve a similar situation before but the present King is not inclined to involve himself. So it is up to the parties to resolve this on their own. Obstinacy is never a good bargaining tool. Taking their seats has more advantages and will probably pave the way for an outright victory in the next election than holding mass demonstrations which in the end might backfire with the population. One can lose a lot of credibility threatening things and then not following through with them.  A large part of Phnom Penh’s population thinks of them more as a nuisance than anything else. Cambodia is no Middle Eastern country, nor is it the Ukraine. Events there cannot be duplicated here. The stakes and the circumstances there were vastly different. Cambodia has not geostrategic or political value to Western powers. And the Chinese are firmly on the CPP’s side.

The boycott may come to end within the next few days, according to the latest news. They finally found a compromise about holding an earlier election, though most likely in the same year in order to comply with the constitution. Not much gain for the CRNP. Another issue was the composition of the Election Committee. That seems to have been a breakthrough and a point for the CNRP. But the fact remains that the boycott was not really effective. They didn’t force the ruling party into major concessions and changes. Business has gone on as usual. From his original demand for Hun Sen to step down and for sweeping changes nothing much is left.  So was it worth it? Given the results and considering the demonstrations and the strikes that were surely somewhat inspired by the demonstrations, the cost was too high in both human and material loss.

News break: somebody threw a monkey wrench into the works as now obviously the election is not early enough. Kem Sokha seems to have objected. The two leaders stand in their own way and they play politics for politics sake. This is typical Sam Rainsy. One day he says this, the next day it is no longer good. First they have an agreement, now they don’t. I am no fan of the CPP, but with an opposition like this how can you ever reach a compromise?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more. The current policy by the opposition is foolish and counterproductive. In addition, with so little experience running a country, Sam Rainsey's participation was two decades ago, there is little reason to expect the CNRP would do a better job and in fact might end up being less competent. The long term strategy should be to participate in government now, gain experience and win gThe election next time. That they don't do that makes one question their ultimate motives.