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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Commune elections back to future

Commune elections back to future

TECHNICAL and legislative holdups are again delaying the commune elections,

which look unlikely to be held before the end of next year or early 2001 at the

earliest.

The main problem remains passage of the commune elections draft

law. It has been in the planning stages for almost six years.

But the

Secretary of State for the Ministry of Interior, Prum Sokha, said speed has not

been a factor in the draft law's formulation.

"We're trying to keep the

pace [of the draft law's formulation] moving, but slowly," said Sokha.

"According to our speed, the draft law should be completed in the first six

months of next year."

Sokha dismissed allegations made by Funcinpec and

Sam Rainsy Party legislators that the CPP is blocking the commune elections for

fear they will erode its current monopoly on power at the grassroots level.

"The Commune Elections Draft Law has not stalled ... The government is

committed to holding the elections as part of its public administration reform

objectives," he said.

The Kingdom is divided into 1,606 communes, ranging

in population from 1,000 to 50,000 residents.

The idea of providing

Cambodian citizens a voice in local affairs through the election of a commune

chief was first mandated during the UNTAC period.

"The government

originally planned to hold the elections before the 1998 national election, but

the July 1997 fighting caused them to drop those plans," Sokha said.

In

the interim, wrangling over the details of how the commune elections should be

conducted and what they should achieve has changed.

"Originally, the

commune elections were to be for the election of a commune chief," Sokha said.

"Now the plan is for people to vote for commune councils."

The three

candidates that garner the most votes in each commune will assume the roles of

commune "chief" and "deputy chiefs" respectively.

The alterations in the

form of the Commune Election Draft Law are apparently the result of a ministry

"brainstorming session" in February attended by representatives of the United

Nations Development Program and "other concerned ministries".

The same

session produced change in the scope of the powers wielded by elected

representatives at the commune level, with certain provincial and national

powers devolved to communes.

"The commune councils will have the power to

make decisions themselves relating to rural development ... and the utilization

of their own human and physical resources," Sokha said.

Jurisdictional

disputes that might arise between commune councils and provincial and national

ministries will be "negotiated by a [yet unformed] "inter-ministerial

committee".

Sokha describes the commune elections as a key plank in the

government's commitment to decentralization.

"Decentralization is not

easy, [so] our philosophy is to start with the most simple, lower level [of

government]," Sokha said. "Other countries that have started decentralization

have failed immediately because that started with the most complex level [of

government]."

According to Sokha, the decentralization of powers slated

to occur in the aftermath of the commune elections will provide a much-needed

boost to other government development plans.

"The establishment of the

commune councils will also [assist to] alleviate poverty in the countryside and

help build up the basis of democracy," Sokha said.

"Even though people at

the commune level may not be educated, they know how to govern

themselves."

But those goals remain elusive due to the MOI's snail's pace

in forwarding the draft law to the National Assembly for approval.

"Prime Minister Hun Sen has given his agreement in principle to the

changes in the draft law," Sokha said. "Now [the Ministry of Interior] will

amend and redraft the law."

Although insisting that the government is

committed to "keeping the process moving without delay", Sokha quashes any hope

of a completed Commune Elections Draft Law by the end of 1999.

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