King Away; Senate President to Sign Party Law

With King Norodom Sihamoni out of the country, Senate President and CPP stalwart Say Chhum is set to sign off on controversial new changes to the Law on Political Parties, the last step in what some are calling the final, fatal blow to Cambodia’s democracy.

The Constitutional Council, a body stacked with CPP loyalists, ruled on Friday that amendments giving the CPP-controlled government and the courts broad new powers to suspend and dissolve political parties complied with the highest law of the land.

Prime Minister Hun Sen greets King Norodom Sihamoni as the king prepares for a weekslong trip to China for a medical checkup, in a photograph posted to the prime minister’s Facebook page last week.

“The Constitutional Council decides that the Law on Political Parties adopted by the National Assembly and the Senate is pronounced constitutional,” the council said in a brief statement.

The amendments would normally head to King Norodom Sihamoni for his signature before taking effect. But the king left for China on Friday for a weekslong medical checkup, and those duties will fall to the Senate president, Mr. Chhum.

“Samdech Say Chhum will sign it as acting head of state,” said Mam Bun Neang, the Senate spokesman. “It could be on Monday or the end of the week. It’s a Royal Palace affair.”

Mr. Bun Neang said he did not know why the signing could not wait for the king’s return.

Oum Daravuth, an adviser to the royal family, could not be reached for comment.

King Sihamoni’s late father, Norodom Sihanouk, would as monarch occasionally leave the country specifically to avoid endorsing legislation with which he did not agree. Though he could not block the legislation, he could make his political views known by choosing not to be available to sign it into law.

Since taking the throne in 2004, his son has shown none of his father’s penchant for politics and has gone along with every official act the CPP has asked of him.

Prince Sisowath Thomico, a member of the opposition CNRP’s steering committee, said he did not believe that this time was any different. He said the king made about two trips a year to China for medical checkups and that the timing of this one was just a coincidence.

Cham Bunthet, a political analyst and adviser to the Grassroots Democracy Party, said there was no way to know for sure. Though the king has effectively served the CPP by signing off on past legislation that strengthened the ruling party’s hand, Mr. Bunthet said, he may have wanted to avoid tainting his own hands with these amendments.

“I think it could be the case,” he said. “It would be good for him to just go away and avoid any political involvement.”

Once the amendments take effect, the Interior Ministry will have the power to indefinitely suspend political parties for any legal infraction, even if attributed to a single party leader. The Supreme Court will have the power to dissolve a party for a short but vaguely worded list of offenses left open to its interpretation.

Though the CPP has since denied it, Prime Minister Hun Sen, while proposing the changes last month, said they were targeted specifically at the CNRP, which nearly won national elections four years ago and poses as the CPP’s only viable challenger next year.

In protest, the opposition boycotted votes on the amendments in the National Assembly and Senate last month. The CPP, with a majority of seats in both chambers, was able to push them through regardless.

Some jailed lawmakers in the CNRP—as well as those from the legacy Sam Rainsy Party—have resigned to pre-empt possible issues with the new law. SRP Senator Thak Lany, who fled overseas to escape a defamation conviction, also resigned from the party’s permanent and steering committees last month, according to a letter signed by Ms. Lany that was posted online over the weekend.

Late last month, a dozen local NGOs issued a joint statement arguing that the changes were unconstitutional because they gave the Interior Ministry and Supreme Court—both widely perceived to be instruments of the CPP—the power to rob voters of the representatives for whom they cast ballots. The U.S. advocacy group Human Rights Watch called the amendments the “final blow” to the foundations of Cambodia’s fledgling democracy.

The CPP says the government needs the new powers to maintain national unity.

(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)

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