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Commune secretaries: assistants or spies?

In the third of a series focusing on issues related to the February 2002 commune elections, Rajesh Kumar looks at the controversy over the role and loyalties of post-election commune secretaries.

Will the commune secretaries end up as government agents in the commune council rather than acting as assistants to the newly elected councillors in legal and administrative affairs?

This is the question vexing a large number of political candidates, NGOs and the electorate in the absence of any clear-cut guidelines on the powers and functions of commune secretaries.

Following a March qualifying examination, the Ministry of Interior (MoI) selected 1,904 commune secretary candidates from recent university graduates and the existing cadre of provincial government employees and commune officials.

Once they complete intensive training in various legal and administrative aspects of democracy, governance and decentralization scheduled to begin in June, these candidates will be ready to assume the role of commune secretaries in each of the 1621 communes after the February 3, 2002 elections.

Mr Leng Vy, Deputy Director of the MoI's Department of General Administration, says the secretaries will be the central government's representatives in the communes delegated to advise commune councilors on legal and administrative issues.

But critics say the commune secretary's role is suspiciously similar to that of a communist-style party apparatchik entrusted to monitor proceedings on behalf of the ruling party.

Otfried Ulshofer, consultant with a German aid agency, GTZ, which is supporting the government's decentralization program, says the commune secretary's role is potentially conflicting.

"On the one hand there will be elected commune councilors who, being the political decision makers, will have the right to stand in the limelight," Ulshofer wrote in a statement on the issue. "And on the other, the secretary will act as their advisor in all legal and administrative matters and in order to ensure the sustainable functioning of local government and administration, will need to have full information about everything that's going on. Since knowledge is power, he or she will be in a rather strong position [to exert influence]."

Panha Koul of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel) also has concern about the potential for abuse of power by commune secretaries.

"In Cambodia, anyone who is in a position of power has the habit of exercising it in a blatant way, they don't like to advise, but order," Koul said. "Besides, being an employee of the MoI, the commune secretary would be accountable to the employers and do [the government's] bidding."

Sek Sophal of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Coffel) has similar worries.

"The very fact that the secretary is the MoI representative and qualified in the legal and administrative matters will be intimidating enough for the (new) councilors," Sophal said. "And if they happen to belong to a party other than the CPP, their fear would be that each of their actions is constantly being monitored."

Commune administration law provisions already decree that commune councilors are accountable to their respective political parties which can replace them at will. Critics fear the additional pressure from a central government "agent" would make them focus on pleasing their party and the central government rather than working for the electorate.

Such concerns, the NGOs insist, are based on the results of actual interviews with the potential candidates at the commune level, a claim that is endorsed by the findings of workshops conducted by the Commune Council Support Project (CCSP) in seven provinces during April. The workshop identified the powers of commune secretaries as a major cause of concern for all those who participated.

Ulshofer advocates well-defined regulations that clearly delineate that commune secretaries are exclusively under the instruction and supervision of commune chiefs and councils.

"Even if [the secretary] is a strong personality, he or she should practice self-restraint, stay in the background leaving the floor publicity to the elected councilors and be impartial to all of them, free of political bias and abstain from political activities," he says.

While the exact powers and functions of commune secretaries are yet to be determined, Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng stated in a recent speech that they will neither give orders to the commune council nor surreptitiously monitor their activities.

A senior MoI official points to the fact that though each of the 1621 councils were to have one secretary, the number of secretaries selected were much higher (1904) to take into account their replacement, retirement or resignation. To check their powers, it is also stipulated that a secretary must be removed after a request from the presiding commune councilor following a decision of the commune council.

In the ongoing argument, David Ayers of the Commune Council Support Project asks a fundamental question: "If the role (of commune secretaries) is to work under the leadership of the commune, why this person, who may be trained by the central government to ensure his compliance with administrative and procedural regulations, can not be regarded as an employee of the council?"

Meanwhile, the MoI has signed an agreement with the Cambodian Institute of Human Rights (CIHR) for training of commune secretaries. Forty-eight senior trainers have been trained in 18 subjects ranging from constitution and administrative laws and procedures to professional ethics and gender equality. These trainers, already serving as government employees, will be dispatched in pairs to the provinces to in turn train the newly-selected secretaries before the commune elections.

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