Cambodia lurches towards political resolution but uncertainties remain

After months of inertia following inconclusive elections last year, Cambodia’s political parties jumped into action last week and finally seem poised to form a working government, analysts said.

The exact shape it will take however remains uncertain, they warn, with the three parties winning seats in last July’s elections in this young Southeast Asian democracy yet to agree on precisely how power will be shared.

On Monday, increasingly impatient Prime Minister Hun Sen, Southeast Asia’s longest serving premier and royalist chief Prince Norodom Ranariddh, tentatively agreed to reform their decade-old coalition.

The deal was seen as a major breakthrough towards re-opening Cambodia’s parliament, where key pieces of legislation are languishing, causing frustration among ordinary Cambodians as well as the international community.

It was complicated however by the leaders leaving the door open for the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) to take seats in government via Ranariddh’s FUNCINPEC, with whom it formed an "Alliance of Democrats" after the elections.

The alliance had sought to remove Hun Sen from power in return for supporting his Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), which won the most seats in the polls but failed to secure the majority needed to govern alone.

That demand was dropped as part of a November deal brokered by Ranariddh’s father King Norodom Sihanouk, which saw the three parties agree to jointly govern. The agreement foundered however on crucial details, leading Hun Sen to coax his old coalition partner back into the fold.

Monday’s move proved a surprise for the normally loquacious Sam Rainsy, who was stunned into silence for several days before the alliance issued a statement — to some unconvincing — insisting the alliance remained firm.

"They wanted to inform the public that they’re still together, they’re not divorced yet. But there are so many things that they must work out together… I’m not sure if they will be able to be satisfied," an Asian diplomat told AFP.

He said he believed that Rainsy wanted to join the government — in what has been dubbed a "two-and-a-half-party" arrangement — in order for his relatively young party to gain vital experience in power.

Most see the Rainsy condition as merely a face-saving measure for all: the CPP is satisfied as it insisted it would not be part of a tripartite agreement, while Ranariddh did not exactly agree to a two-party deal and betray the SRP.

"I believe both CPP and Ranariddh want two parties (in government). They are hoping that Rainsy will say no," one ambassador told AFP last week.

Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen are extremely bitter rivals and a government with both would be too fiery to last, many believe.

As with November’s in-principle agreement, snags are expected to emerge while thrashing out any power-sharing deal between the SRP and FUNCINPEC, with Ranariddh himself warning it may take a month before all is agreed.

That timeframe would mean Sihanouk, a fierce critic of the recent manoeuvering especially by the Alliance leaders, would not be greeted by a new government on return from Beijing, where he has been undergoing medical treatment and is expected back just before Khmer New Year in mid-April.

"The picture that has emerged so far is still ambiguous. While the CPP and FUNCINPEC are moving ahead… what remains to be seen is how it will work out in the detail," political analyst Kao Kim Hourn told AFP.

"Sam Rainsy is right now weighing his options. It’s also up to FUNCINPEC to decide what they want."

Despite their weariness, Cambodians appear to be prepared to wait out the latest negotiations, which will involve working parties from the coalition hammering out fine points, along with the royalist-Rainsy deal.

"We want to see all of them join together and help the country," said legal expert Sok Sam Oeun. "On the one hand people are tiring, but the option of moving quickly is dangerous. We don’t want that either."

For outsiders, the lengthy deadlock, the proposed concept of an opposition party that also sits in parliament and the fluidity of alliances might seem bizarre, but given Cambodia’s war-scarred past, many here are unperturbed.

"This is Cambodia — anything can happen. You cannot compare Cambodia with other, normal democratic countries," the Asian diplomat said.

"Taking into account they’ve been fighting for 20 years and are just emerging from war, it’s good enough that they’re not pulling out guns and fighting with each other."

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