Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy on Thursday failed to reach a deal on the date of the next national election but reaffirmed that the point remains the last hurdle to a deal that would end the country’s political deadlock.
Mr. Rainsy said on Wednesday that the pair could appear before King Norodom Sihamoni today to sign a deal ending the CNRP’s boycott of its National Assembly seats, if he and Mr. Hun Sen agreed to an election date Friday.
In a speech at the National Institute of Education on Thursday morning, Mr. Hun Sen confirmed Mr. Rainsy’s claims. He added that the two had in fact agreed during a Wednesday phone call to move the next election from July 2018 to February 2018.
The approval of CNRP Vice President Kem Sokha, who is currently touring Cambodian communities in the U.S., was all that was required to finish the deal, Mr. Hun Sen said.
Mr. Rainsy, speaking by telephone, immediately denied Mr. Hun Sen’s claim. In a press conference in the afternoon, he indicated that the CNRP is now willing to accept a July 2017 vote.
“There is no comprehensive agreement yet,” said Mr. Rainsy. *********** *********** “The CPP accepts that the next legislative election will be held in February 2018. We replied that it is not enough.”
“We want the election earlier, at least one year earlier. Originally we asked for mid-term, and mid-term would be early 2016.”
Mr. Rainsy added that he and Mr. Hun Sen would compromise on a new election date in the “in days or at most weeks.” But he said there will be no meeting with Mr. Hun Sen in front of King Sihamoni without the presence of Mr. Sokha.
“Our party has a democratic core, so when we want to do anything, there must be the signature of Kem Sokha, the vice president, and me, the president,” Mr. Rainsy said. “If we consider our heart, Kem Sokha and I are only one person.”
Mr. Rainsy declined to comment when asked if he would replace senior CPP leader Heng Samrin as National Assembly president as part of the deal with Mr. Hun Sen.
“I cannot confirm that,” Mr. Rainsy said, acknowledging that leadership of the National Assembly was stipulated in the draft agreement with Mr. Hun Sen.
“That is not the stumbling block—we want the election to be held earlier,” he said.
Earlier at the National Institute of Education, the prime minister told a crowd of university students to blame Mr. Sokha and not Mr. Rainsy if there was no deal.
Mr. Hun Sen said that he had offered Mr. Rainsy a compromise on the reform of the National Election Committee (NEC), and on bringing forward the date of the next round of scheduled commune council elections from July 2017 to February 2017.
The two also settled on February 2018 for the national election, Mr. Hun Sen said, because the month avoided the rainy weather of July, harvest times, and the Khmer New Year.
“[Mr. Rainsy] agreed with this,” Mr. Hun Sen said. “But Sam Rainsy asked me for some time to confer with his vice president, Kem Sokha, who is in America, and said that he will work hard to ask him to come back from America on time by April 11.”
“We needed to request the King because the King had time to meet us at 9 a.m. as he also has other duties,” the prime minister said. “He [Mr. Rainsy] needed one hour to discuss this with his vice president, but I told him: Your Excellency is the president [of the CNRP], so tell him [Mr. Sokha] not to be too firm.”
At that point, the agreement to end the deadlock seemed over, he said.
“I told him to contact His Excellency [Interior Minister] Sar Kheng and in the evening, Sar Kheng told me that His Excellency Kem Sokha did not agree,” Mr. Hun Sen explained.
“If this is not signed, it is not the fault of Hun Sen, it is not the fault of the CPP, and it is not the fault of Sam Rainsy or Sam Rainsy’s working groups,” Mr. Hun Sen said.
“It will be the fault of His Excellency Kem Sokha,” he said.
Mr. Hun Sen warned the CNRP not to try to change the meaning of what was said in the Wednesday conversation between him and Mr. Rainsy, because the prime minister had recorded their conversation.
To prove his point, Mr. Hun Sen played excerpts of the 44-minute phone conversation from Wednesday, in which he refers to Mr. Rainsy as “His Excellency.”
“Hello, how are you Samdech?” Mr. Rainsy could be heard asking Mr. Hun Sen, using the prime minister’s honorific.
“Fine, I just came back from playing golf,” Mr. Hun Sen responds.
“It’s nearly New Year, I wish Samdech good health,” Mr. Rainsy says.
Mr. Hun Sen threatened to play more of the call if a dispute over its content arose.
A deal between the CPP and CNRP would mean the end of the opposition party’s boycott of the 123-seat National Assembly, which began in September when King Sihamoni swore in the ruling CPP’s 68 lawmakers-elect.
The CNRP says that the July 28 national election was marred by widespread irregularities under the CPP-controlled NEC and has demanded a new election.
Last year, Mr. Rainsy and Mr. Sokha led mass demonstrations that peaked in late December with a march of 50,000 people calling for Mr. Hun Sen to resign.
In early January, the government violently repressed the demonstrations and shot dead five people taking part in related nationwide protests of striking garment factory workers.
Since then, a blanket ban on public gatherings has been in place in Phnom Penh, although it is arbitrarily enforced.
Mr. Rainsy, speaking by telephone, reiterated last night that he hoped to hear from Mr. Hun Sen or Interior Minister Sar Kheng in the coming days to further discuss an end to the political deadlock.
“My door is always open,” the opposition leader said.
sovuthy@cambodiadaily.com, willemyns@cambodiadaily.com
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