The ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and opposition Cambodian National Rescue Party (CNRP) came to an agreement to end political deadlock in Cambodia, but it remains to be seen whether meaningful reform will ensue.
Since July 2013 elections, the CNRP boycotted parliament in an effort to reconcile election irregularities and press for electoral reform. Last year’s election was the first time Prime Minister Hun Sen’s 28-year reign was nearly threatened by defeat: The CPP garnered just 68 seats in parliament, leaving the CNRP with 55 seats. The CNRP asserts that polling fraud, issuance of an illegitimate number of temporary voting cards, and the unfairly biased National Election Committee (NEC) contributed to an unfree and unfair election.
In previous negotiations, the CNRP sought several reforms, including fresh elections in February 2016, a television station for the CNRP (since all major television and radio networks are controlled by the CPP), and reform of the NEC—the main electoral body in Cambodia.
The newly inked deal between the two parties promises reform to the NEC. At present, the eleven NEC members are pro-CPP. Reforms will require that nine members sit on the NEC: Four will be CPP, four will be CNRP, and one member will be a mutually agreed upon mediator. The CPP also agreed to release seven recently arrested members of the opposition and clean up the nation’s voting records.
Yet the CPP and the CNRP did not set a new early election date or establish a commission to investigate potential election fraud, and the eight released political prisoners still face lingering (and severe) charges. Furthermore, whether Hun Sen will fulfill his promise for NEC reform remains an open question.
While the deal will bring an end to protests and ushers previously boycotting CNRP members of parliament back to session, it will not resolve Cambodia’s entrenched and deep-rooted political problems.
The U.S. should watch closely to see whether reforms are implemented as promised by the Hun Sen government. CNRP protests in recent months have been met with government and police abuse, violence, and a denial of human rights. The Hun Sen administration should not get a free pass just for coming to the table.
The new agreement is just one step toward political reconciliation in Cambodia. There are many hurdles and trials ahead—not the least of which is setting a new election date. The U.S. should not forget Cambodia and the responsibility it has as a signatory of the Paris Peace Accord to ensure that Hun Sen respects the rights of his people by honoring the integrity of the electoral process.