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CAMBODIA: Major Political Reform on the Cards

Marwaan Macan-Markar

BANGKOK , Feb 17 2006 (IPS) - The return of Cambodia’s opposition leader, after a year of self-imposed exile in France, is setting the tone for a new and possibly less acrimonious political culture in the months ahead.

In a spirit of rapprochement, Sam Rainsy, who heads the opposition party that bears his name, the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), made a political offer this month that could produce a fresh chapter in the way governments are formed, after each general election, in that South-east Asian country.

Sam Rainsy’s proposal calls for the current Cambodian constitution to be amended to allow governments to be formed with a simple majority in the parliament rather than the two-thirds majority that is currently required.

It was an offer that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, could not refuse. The premier welcomed the proposal – which was made in a letter Sam Rainsy wrote to him and National Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh – by saying it should mark the end of the era of ”political deadlocks.”

”This formula can help to avoid future conflicts between parties after elections,” Mu Soc Hua, a former cabinet minister for women’s and veteran’s affairs, told IPS during a telephone interview from Phnom Penh. ”There is a lot of public support for this idea. It will help Cambodia’s democracy to mature.”

She expects the proposal to sail through the 123-member National Assembly with some ease, given the consensus behind this idea. ”We are willing to go for it; to make a difference,” added Mu Soc Hua, who is a member of the SRP.

Others interpret this measure as one that will force the Hun Sen administration to be more accountable, given that the prime minister has been displaying increasing authoritarian tendencies, specially against his critics, including trying to silence them through harsh means. Sam Rainsy, himself, was a target after accusing Hun Sen for allegedly having a hand in a deadly grenade attack on an SRP rally nine years ago.

”The proposal will lead to an increase in the number of members in the opposition and this is a welcome strength,” says Koul Pan Ha, executive director of the Phnom Penh-based Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (CAMFREL), a non-governmental body. ”This will make checks and balances more meaningful.”

The culture of accountability is ”weaker under the prevailing system,” he added during an interview. ”The government had to accept this offer because of the criticism it has been receiving.”

In fact, Sam Rainsy hinted at this emerging line of thinking on the day he arrived, telling reporters that he would meet Hun Sen to settle their political differences. ”Democracy requires all leaders to talk to each other to find a solution for the nation,” he was quoted in the media as having said. ”I will do whatever it takes for the country to progress.”

The sense of hope arising from the new political language is also understandable given the turmoil that has dogged polls after democracy was restored in the early 1990s following decades of war and the genocidal rule of the Khmer Rouge.

The three general elections held since the fighting ended became victims to a clause in the constitution that was shaped with the blessings of the United Nations, which had one of its largest peace-keeping operations and nation-building programmes there.

Cambodia’s 1993 constitution declared that a political party needs a two-thirds majority of seats to form a government in the National Assembly. This was in contrast to the normal political practice of a simple majority sufficing.

What unfolded, as a result, in a country already burdened with poverty and a score of social problems was a bitter political climate in the need to form ruling alliances. The protagonists who initially clashed to create deadlocks and then to overcome them were the Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which Hun Sen leads, and the royalist ‘FUNCINPEC’ party, headed by Prince Norodom Ranariddh.

The SRP emerged on the scene later, but played a pivotal role in this atmosphere of deadlocks following the last parliamentary poll in July 2003. It forged a link with the FUNCINPEC party to prevent the CPP from forming a coalition government as it had done before. The CPP had won 73 seats, FUNCINPEC secured 26 seats and the SRP garnered 24 seats.

What followed was 11 months of a country without a government till FUNCINPEC changed its acrimonious stance towards the CPP and settled to work as the junior partner in a coalition government.

Those who defended the two-thirds majority clause in the constitution argue that it was essential at the time when the emphasis was on reconciliation and peace among the rival groups. It was seen as a measure to bring the country’s disparate political groups together in order to govern the battle-scared country in unison.

”The two-thirds clause served a purpose but now we need change,” says Koul Pan Ha. ”It was easy for the government to do whatever it wanted because it had a huge majority through the coalition. It meant too much power.”

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