The National Assembly yesterday voted to amend the constitution and add new chapters that will enshrine an overhauled National Election Committee made up of members from both the ruling and opposition parties.
All 120 lawmakers present voted for the changes, the main points of which were agreed to in July when the ruling Cambodian People’s Party and opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party reached a deal that ended a year of post-election deadlock.
The NEC has long been castigated by the opposition and civil society groups as an institution beholden to the CPP, and it is hoped that the changes will provide an even playing field for the next national election.
But election watchdogs have complained that these amendments were passed without some of their key recommendations.
They are demanding they be consulted immediately on a new NEC law that will soon be passed and forthcoming changes to the election law, the details of which they say will determine whether yesterday’s constitutional changes will really make a difference.
The key changes pushed through yesterday are found in the new Chapter 15 of the constitution.
As expected, Article 151 of this chapter says that of the NEC’s nine members, four will be chosen by the ruling party and four will be chosen by the opposition. The final member will be a candidate chosen by both parties.
The text does not specify how this would work if more than two parties won seats.
The parliamentary standing committee will be responsible for “transparently” preparing the composition of NEC members to be voted on.
In the event that the vote fails – the CPP still holds the required majority of 50 per cent plus one, which it needs to block it – the “old composition” of the NEC would remain.
Pung Chhiv Kek, president of rights group Licadho, was selected by both parties as the ninth “consensus” candidate in July but asked for parliamentary-style immunity for NEC members to be added to the constitution.
As expected, there was no such provision. Kek has declined to speak to the media in recent weeks to confirm whether she will still take the position.
The changes also grant the NEC autonomy in the drawing up of its budget, which previously had to be requested from the government.
Senior CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang said the constitutional changes would ensure a free election.
“On behalf of the whole National Assembly, I believe that when this constitution comes into effect, we will have an electoral institution that will fulfill its role independently; ensure that elections are free, fair and just; and can help to end any political crisis at the next elections,” he said.
Speaking outside the assembly yesterday, CNRP president Sam Rainsy was not quite as bold, calling the changes the “first step” in a “long journey”.
Rainsy had met privately with Prime Minister Hun Sen for an hour outside the session.
He said the pair had talked about the political situation following their July 22 agreement.
“Each party must respect the spirit [of the agreement] that we have made together. We do not need to remind [Hun Sen about the agreement], as Samdech [Hun Sen] himself has remembered it and has the will to respect this spirit.”
Sok Eysan, a senior CPP lawmaker, said he agreed that the changes would mean the public could have full confidence in the next election, but that it didn’t guarantee smooth sailing.
“We have a proper law and we have a proper procedure already, so if there are any more protests, it is up to the voters to judge,” he said.
Koul Panha, head of election watchdog Comfrel, said that there was a significant lack of detail in the constitutional changes, such as what powers the NEC will have, how its independence will be ensured and what “competence” it will have to ensure a free election – such as handling voter registration.
These issues would have to be detailed clearly in the upcoming NEC law, he said.
“But the problem is that both working groups of the parties have closed the doors and are not giving space for our input.”
The Senate and the King must still approve the change, but given the history of past laws, that step is little more than a formality.