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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - CNRP ‘decides’ on Puthea

Hang Puthea, director of Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia
Hang Puthea, director of Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, talks to the Post on Wednesday about the ninth seat on the National Election Committee. Hong Menea

CNRP ‘decides’ on Puthea

The opposition emerged from an afternoon meeting yesterday saying it was united on the selection of Hang Puthea, head of election-monitoring group Nicfec, as the ninth member of the reformed National Election Committee (NEC).

The announcement followed days of seeming uncertainty over the decision, which one party official previously told the Post had been made by party president Sam Rainsy “alone”.

Cambodia National Rescue Party spokesman Yem Ponharith said yesterday that after discussing the choice at the meeting, members had ultimately agreed to back the candidate.

“We do not object, because he is a candidate from civil society. He has worked in election [monitoring], so it is not bad,” he said. “We have confidence in his conscientiousness.”

Ponharith added that concerns from the CNRP earlier this week had centred around rumours that Puthea, the slated “neutral” element of the nine-member NEC, suffers from severe diabetes – something Puthea himself denies – and could miss crucial votes due to health problems.

He explained that with one member absent, the remaining eight could still make a decision, but the vote would be weighted in the favour of whichever party holds the NEC’s deputy president role. “If he does not have any disease, it is even better,” Ponharith added.

After formally agreeing to back Puthea’s candidacy earlier this week, CNRP president Sam Rainsy made an abrupt turnaround, calling on Prime Minister Hun Sen to consider other applicants, citing the rumours of Puthea’s ill health.

Following an ultimatum from Hun Sen on Wednesday that it was either Puthea or keeping the existing and much-maligned NEC, Rainsy said his party fully backed the candidate, while other members said they remained undecided.

Rainsy maintained yesterday that “the decision [on Puthea] was made many days ago”, and denied that the meeting was held to discuss the candidate. It was to “discuss how to improve our communications” so that people would not interpret divisions within the party, he said.

With both parties backing his candidacy, Koul Panha, executive director of election monitoring group Comfrel, said he had faith that Puthea would thrive in the role. “He has worked in election [monitoring] since a long time ago. I hope that he will continue [to promote an] open culture for civil society to join in offering ideas” regarding future elections.

In an interview on Wednesday, Puthea said he would not compromise his neutral role for either party.

“I love [having a] neutral position. So if they want me to turn left or turn right, I will absolutely not do it,” he said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALICE CUDDY

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