An exercise in futility?
In mid-February, as the ruling and opposition parties declared they would restart formal talks focusing on election reform in a bid to finally end months of political deadlock, observers predicted that little would be achieved.
It had been roughly six weeks since a violent crackdown on protesting opposition supporters and striking workers put a swift end to burgeoning anti-government protests and seemingly put the ruling party back in the driver’s seat.
“I appreciate that they will start [formal] negotiations, but, for me, they will be useless. This time, the CPP has great power and the CNRP has very little power at the negotiating table,” political analyst Kem Ley told the Post at the time.
On Monday, following the fourth meeting of a bipartisan election reform committee that was formed as a result of those talks, Ley’s comments appeared prescient.
Frustrated after weeks of flip-flopping from the Cambodian People’s Party on the opposition’s key demand of National Election Committee reform, the Cambodia National Rescue Party threw in the towel, halting lower-level talks and demanding a meeting between top party leaders.
“If the [CPP] understands that NEC reform is an important priority, wants to have a real, independent NEC and wants to actually solve problems rather than [simply] delay, [they] should respond to what the [CNRP] has requested,” deputy CNRP leader Kem Sokha said yesterday, warning that his party would lead more demonstrations if its demands are not met.
On January 12, senior party figures said a “final campaign” to force Prime Minister Hun Sen to step down or call fresh elections was being targeted for March.
Though the party has called a press conference for this morning following the return of CNRP leader Sam Rainsy from abroad yesterday, officials were coy last night about what would be announced.
The CPP, meanwhile, has stated it cannot accept being “forced” to agree to the opposition’s central request: that the NEC be replaced with a constitutionally mandated election body whose members must be approved by at least two-thirds of parliament.
But to many observers, the recent breakdown of talks has merely confirmed what they speculated beforehand – that the CPP, despite being under immense pressure, was never serious about in-depth election reform.
“The CPP understands that the demand for electoral reform from Cambodian society and key stakeholders, including development partners, is so strong that it cannot ignore it,” said Preap Kol, executive director at Transparency International Cambodia, which monitors elections.
“But the CPP is seen to be willing to [only] undertake reform in areas that do not fundamentally affect the NEC composition. This indicates that the CPP considers the NEC to be very important for them rather than considering it a neutral or independent national institution to administer the elections.
“This further validates the concerns that the CNRP and society have about the NEC, which they believe to be one of the root causes [of] electoral problems.”
On March 11, following the committee’s second meeting, at which the ruling party wanted to focus on the neutrality of election NGOs, opposition leader Sam Rainsy sent a note to the diplomatic community arguing that the CPP was simply trying to “buy time and to cling on to power by any means and at any cost”.
A day later, CNRP leaders told supporters that they were preparing to “cut off talks” in favour of protests, saying the ruling party was only putting on a show to appease foreign donors.
Those demonstrations never occurred, and after more than a month of participating in talks that have achieved nothing, any leverage the opposition once had is ebbing away, according to Ou Virak of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.
“The CNRP is losing steam a little bit. While going to talk, they should have kept the pressure up. They can talk and protest at the same time, maybe not on a massive scale, but they should come up with ways to keep up the pressure,” he said.
But while more mass demonstrations might not be a viable option, repeated statements from Defence Minister Tea Banh pledging the military’s allegiance to the government shows that “a lot of nervousness” remains in the CPP, Virak added.
“Any reforms that the CPP will agree to make are going to be ones that aim to please and not ones that will undermine its grip on power. That’s the balance the CPP is trying to strike. You’ve got to pressure the CPP to reform, and without that pressure, they won’t.”
Peter Tan Keo, a US-based analyst and Southeast Asia expert, said that top-level talks were the only way that major election reform issues could be agreed on.
“Negotiations should always have been at the highest levels. That’s where real decisions are made, at least within the CPP. It was somewhat foolhardy for the opposition to think otherwise,” he said.
“Unfortunately, the CNRP has lost a great deal of steam that may, at this point, be difficult to recuperate.”
Veteran political pundit Dr Lao Mong Hay agreed that “the negotiations strategy was wrong from the beginning”.
Given that Cambodia already has extensive reform recommendations from a number of international and local groups, the parties should have set a time frame from the beginning to debate those recommendations, he said.
“If you have that kind of strategy [as opposed to a committee studying reforms], we can see who is dragging their feet,” he said.
But for those who are hoping to see an end to the deadlock any time soon, there appears to be no rush from either party in the ongoing war of attrition, Mong Hay warned.
“It’s a question of time. [There will be no] immediate settlement of issues. [Cambodians] don’t have that type of tradition [where] issues are resolved by ourselves without resorting to third parties. So it will take time.
“But as long as talks are not broken off and abandoned [completely], there is hope there. We take time and wear down our opponents’ strategy.”