Hun Sen, prime minister of Cambodia, and opposition leader Sam Rainsy met last week in an attempt to reconcile differences over allegedly rigged July 2013 elections. Despite their lengthy discussion, no deal was inked.
Since the elections, the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) has called for a transparent review of elections, electoral reform to the National Election Committee (NEC), and a re-election.
Independent observers have claimed that there were as many as 10,000 voting irregularities in the 2013 Cambodian elections. An estimated 10 percent of voters were unable to find their names on the voting registry, indelible ink was easily removed from fingers after voting, and an estimated 700,000 people received temporary voting cards—which do not require identification—before the elections. Nonetheless, the NEC refused to investigate and declared the elections free and fair.
As it stands, the biggest obstacle to a deal between the CNRP and the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) is the election date. The CNRP wants a re-election as early as February 2016, while Hun Sen will move the election date up only from July 2018 to February 2018. The opposition has other concerns, including the NEC’s unilateral control over elections, Hun Sen’s monopoly over the media, and the prime minister’s continued human rights abuses.
If the deal is agreed upon, however, it could result in a major gain for Cambodians: reform to the NEC. The NEC consists of 11 members appointed by Hun Sen and the CPP. The CNRP wants NEC members to be appointed by all parliamentary parties. This would increase the likelihood of the NEC serving as a more impartial third party to check the dictatorial power of the CPP.
If a deal is struck, the U.S. should maintain its call for transparent review of elections. In a recent report, Walter Lohman, director of Heritage’s Asian Studies Center, outlined a series of specific recommendations for policy toward Cambodia. Citing action already taken by Congress to condition aid, including military-to-military cooperation, Lohman recommends re-imposing the ban on assistance to the Cambodian central government that was lifted in 2007 if Hun Sen’s intransigence continues.
In the absence of a deal, the U.S. should do all it can to support the opposition’s reasonable positions. Only for the purposes of endorsing any necessary legal or constitutional change to this end should the U.S. encourage the opposition to take its seats in the assembly.