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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Down to the power of one

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen stand outside the Senate after final negotiations
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen stand outside the Senate after final negotiations on Tuesday. Heng Chivoan

Down to the power of one

One person will hold the balance of power on the overhauled National Election Committee when the political agreement signed by the opposition and ruling parties on Tuesday is implemented.

Sitting beside four members from the ruling party and four from the opposition, the man or woman who fills the final “consensus” spot will play the unenviable role of mediator and, presumably, decision maker in an election body that has long been considered beholden to the CPP.

But while there are many possible candidates for the job, it appears most of those floated as top choices by observers stand little chance of being amenable to both sides.

Koul Panha, who since 1998 has been executive director at watchdog the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), is chief amongst them. “This is the best candidate in my eyes, but it’s not the best candidate for the CPP,” political analyst Kem Ley said.

Comfrel has long been critical of all aspects of Cambodia’s elections and is a key part of the Electoral Reform Alliance, an umbrella group whose lengthy report pointing out the flaws of last year’s poll was dismissed by the government as biased and manipulated.

The opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party, meanwhile, used the report as a key piece of evidence to bolster its claims that the election was rigged and that it had really won.

That association would make it “very unlikely” that the CPP would accept Panha, despite his technical expertise, said Ou Virak, chairman of the Cambodian Center for Human Rights.

“He has in the past worked a lot closer with the CNRP and that could be a problem for the CPP,” he said.

The ruling party’s conflation of the opposition and civil society groups, many of which have long been the government’s harshest critics, will likely rule out a number of candidates for the CPP, Virak added. But it cuts both ways.

“If the person is really, truly independent, neither party will agree,” he said.

But the danger is that without consensus, the current NEC will continue its work.

Some civil society candidates who should be considered aside from Panha, according to Ley, include Thun Saray, president of rights group Adhoc; Pung Chhiv Kek, president of rights group Licadho; Yeng Virak, executive director at the Community Legal Education Center; and Lao Mong Hay, a veteran political analyst.

Son Soubert, a political commentator and adviser to the King, offered up a candidate already deeply familiar with the workings of the NEC: Sin Chum Bo, the committee’s current vice chairman.

Chum Bo, who has a doctorate from an American university, “may have an independent mind”, he said, making the case that she could prove palatable for both sides.

“I think she’s suitable for both parties, and I don’t think the CPP would refuse because she is already on that committee . . . I would recommend her as a good candidate or [alternatively] one of the leaders of the NGOs,” said Soubert, who also serves as president of the Human Rights Party, which joined the Sam Rainsy Party to form the CNRP.

“Otherwise, why don’t they just ask His Majesty the King to appoint someone who is neutral from the Royal Palace?” Soubert suggested.

But CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the party would focus on nominating candidates from civil society.

“We are very sure that we will not nominate the old leaders of the NEC,” he said, but declined to name preferences.

One possible alternative to Panha that could be accepted by both sides is Kek of Licadho, who has worked closely with Prime Minister Hun Sen in the past. In the late 1980s, she helped set up the meetings between Hun Sen and the late King Father Norodom Sihanouk that eventually led to the Paris Peace Agreements.

Yesterday, Kek declined to comment on whether she would consider the position.

“The ninth candidate will be very difficult to find, because this person must be completely neutral, without any affiliation or bias,” she said.

Panha, on the other hand, said he would definitely consider the role if asked, but said he still had misgivings about whether the new NEC would really be independent.

“If they put in provisions clearly to make it independent, I would be happy to consider the possibility . . . I’m very happy that the public would consider me,” he said.

Prum Sokha, a lead CPP negotiator in recent talks and a secretary of state at the Interior Ministry, said it was too early to talk about suitable candidates. But he added that he did not think it would be difficult to find consensus.

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