PHNOM PENH (Reuters) - Cambodia’s parliament endorsed opposition leader Sam Rainsy as a lawmaker on Monday as part of a deal with long-term rival Prime Minister Hun Sen that both leaders hailed as an end to a year-long political crisis.
Cambodia has been without an effective parliament since Sam Rainsy’s opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), rejected a 2013 election claiming widespread voter fraud and boycotted parliament.
The political crisis saw some of the country’s biggest street rallies ever and led to violent crackdowns on protesters and striking garment workers, which alarmed major clothing brands that outsource manufacturing to Cambodia, such as Nike, Gap and Adidas.
Hun Sen, the self-styled “strongman” of Cambodian politics, shook hands with a smiling Sam Rainsy to cement an agreement that would see reform of the National Election Commission and parliament and bigger legislative clout for the opposition.
Sam Rainsy was for several years banned from politics because of a media stunt over territorial sovereignty that backfired and led to a 12-year prison sentence in absentia.
He was pardoned just before last year’s election and another lawmaker-elect withdrew to enable Sam Rainsy to take his parliamentary seat.
“I‘m honored and happy to tell all compatriots that the political crisis in Cambodia has ended,” Rainsy told reporters after being endorsed by the national assembly.
The CNRP struck the deal with Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) on July 22, ending the opposition’s house boycott since the disputed 2013 poll.
Under the deal, CNRP would be gain a license for its own television channel, four of nine seats on the election commission and a deputy house speaker position, among other roles.
“This is a good process and our people in the whole country understand compromise,” Hun Sen told reporters. “Today, we can say that the environment is good.”
Despite the upbeat mood, rivalry between the two parties runs deep and the stakes are high given the scale of the challenge facing Hun Sen, who has ruled for nearly three decades and has long been accused of crushing his rivals.
CNRP’s campaign against the 2013 election result had been losing steam because of the fear of violence and the parliamentary stalemate and disruption to the $5 billion garment sector, Cambodia’s biggest earner, was testing the ruling party’s ability to govern.
Political analyst Kem Ley said the political deal had taken away some heat, but the political climate would remain fragile.
“This political agreement is just a temporary one to ease tensions and human rights violations but it isn’t a solution for longer term future deadlock,” he said, anticipating the election commission would remain under the CPP’s influence and CNRP would stage parliamentary walkouts if it felt it was being sidelined.
CNRP’s 55 lawmakers are expected to be sworn-in within days. CPP will have 68 seats having lost 22 in last year’s poll.
Surya Subedi, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on human rights in Cambodia, urged concrete progress by both sides to prevent a repeat of the chaos, saying the deal “only marks the beginning”.
“This is an opportunity to carry out a comprehensive reform of lasting character,” he said in a statement.
(This version of the story adds the full name of Sam Rainsy throughout.)
Editing by Martin Petty and Michael Perry