THE National Election Committee (NEC) has shot down a proposed public telecast of
the Kingdom's first-ever candidate debates starting in seven communes January 19.
The organizer, the National Democratic Institute for International Relations (NDI),
has protested the decision.
NDI has called the decision 'unfortunate' saying it contradicted the concept of local
elections in which voters were required to know the potential of their future commune
leaders, while candidates were forced to focus on specific local issues.
"There can be no legal basis for such a decision. On one hand, the NEC has been
maintaining that the voters need more election-related, unbiased information and
on the other, it is putting a gag on the [debates'] ability to get that information
out to the voters," said NDI director Eric Kessler January 2.
The NEC denied permission for NDI to broadcast the event following a written request
from the latter December 20. The NEC said that as the debaters would be local political
representatives from only a handful of the nation's 1,621 communes, it could not
allow television or radio coverage.
Kessler said that broadcasting the debate could introduce the general public to the
democratic culture of debate and help voters in other communes learn by example.
"It could teach them what kinds of questions are being raised by their counterparts
in other communes and how the party representatives tackle those questions,"
"Above all, it could clearly exhibit to them that it was possible to ask questions
on even sensitive policy issues without fear for violence or retribution."
Earlier, Khmer Institute of Democracy (KID) executive director Dr Lao Mong Hay had
expressed hope the NEC would permit the broadcast.
"[The televised debates] would have a very deep impact on the election as a
whole and could set a precedent for the 2003 general elections, where national leaders
could also acknowledge the merit of dissent through debate. Above all, it could change
the attitude of both the politicians and people [toward elections]," he said.
The NEC was reportedly concerned that candidates in other communes could raise objections,
fearing they would object that they were unable to voice their opinions publicly.
An NEC source said that for broadcasting permission to be granted, the number and
locations of the communes where the pilot programs will be held would have to be
representative of the entire country.
Prom Nhean Vicheth, chairman of the NEC's media and public information committee,
cited Article 126 of the commune election law, saying the NEC wanted the NDI to conform
to the election law and regulations.
While the law allows propaganda by national political parties during the campaign
period, it is silent over extending the privilege to local candidates. Vicheth said
the NEC was not in principle against the telecast or broadcast of any informative
program and had "not quite rejected" the proposal.
Ironically, the NEC had earlier sought US-funding through the NDI to allow all political
parties to present their campaigns to the public through equal airtime. Under such
circumstances, critics of the NEC's decision said, the debates could have been the
best opportunity for the NEC to spread the principle of open debate among the electorate.
"In any other country, the chief electoral body would have jumped at the idea
and offered to co-sponsor an event that could exhibit before the international community
its commitment not only to free and fair elections, but also creativity and novelty
in doing so," said one election observer.
The three main political parties responded enthusiastically to the concept when it
was mooted early December. NDI's liaison team said all had expressed a willingness
to cooperate to make the event a success.
How much cooperation actually materializes and how maturely the political candidates
and voters behave during the exercise will, however, become clear only once the first
debate begins January 19. Shrill debate on the merits and demerits of broadcasting
the event continues.