PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (AP) — The Cambodian opposition boycotted the opening of parliament Monday over alleged widespread cheating in the July elections, putting the country’s political crisis at a critical juncture.
Empty seats dotted the National Assembly as 55 lawmakers elected from the opposition were absent, while 68 ruling party lawmakers attended the session. Heavy security surrounded the parliament following weeks of protests by opposition supporters.
Authoritarian Prime Minister Hun Sen was poised to continue his 28 years in power during a re-election vote scheduled for Tuesday’s session, which was largely a formality. The 61-year-old leader took his seat beside other lawmakers and made no comment about the boycott.
The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party says it was cheated out of a victory because of electoral fraud. It had vowed for weeks to boycott parliament unless the government agreed to an independent probe of the July 28 election results.
The government rejected the demand of an independent probe, and King Norodom Sihamoni had urged the opposition to take its seats at the assembly, pointing to a constitutional stipulation that the assembly must be convened within 60 days of the election.
“The Cambodian nation must stand united,” Norodom Sihamoni told the half-empty assembly as he convened parliament without mentioning the boycott.
The U.S. reiterated its call for a “transparent review of irregularities” in the election, saying that its ambassador attended parliament’s opening but his presence was “not an endorsement of any election outcome or of any political party.”
In a statement from the embassy, the U.S. urged all elected lawmakers to work toward improving democracy in Cambodia. “A functioning National Assembly requires the participation of both major parties,” it said.
As the ruling Cambodian People’s Party swore in its lawmakers, the opposition held its own symbolic ceremony far from the capital at the sacred temple of Angkor Wat, in Siem Reap.
The opposition lawmakers took an oath not to participate in government until justice is delivered, said Son Chhay, an opposition lawmaker.
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy called the convening of parliament without the opposition a violation of the constitution.
“What the (ruling party) did this morning is a step backward for Cambodia,” Sam Rainsy said. “It violates the constitution which calls for pluralism, not one-party rule.”
Talks last week between Hun Sen and Sam Rainsy failed to break the deadlock. Both sides pledged to work toward electoral reforms in the future. They also agreed to seek a non-violent solution to the political crisis, following clashes and a shooting during an earlier demonstration that left one protester dead.
Despite the pact to proceed peacefully, more violence occurred late Sunday. Security forces backed by thugs broke up a peaceful opposition protest at a Buddhist temple compound in the capital, wielding stun guns, electric batons and slingshots that left about 10 people injured, said Rupert Abbott of Amnesty International. Among the injured was a 72-year-old woman hit in the chest with a marble fired from a slingshot, he said.
Analysts say the question now is whether Hun Sen will cede ground to the opposition, and how the opposition will use its new clout — which includes an increase of 26 seats in the assembly.
Analysts are divided over the boycott strategy but say the election’s outcome shows a significant desire for change among voters.
Although Hun Sen is in a position to impose his will, a compromise would be in his interests to give his regime legitimacy, especially among foreign powers who have questioned the fairness of the polls.