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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Election quagmire deepens

Election quagmire deepens

C ONTROVERSIAL articles in the government's draft law on political parties have added

to uncertainities about the structure, date and foreign funding of the national elections

scheduled for next year.

Democracy advocates and some MPs and diplomats have voiced concern about several

provisions in the draft law, currently before the National Assembly.

The polls are slated for May 23, 1998. However, since the government says it cannot

cover the estimated $21 million cost, donor funds are crucial to the process, including

meeting that deadline.

As most bilateral and multilateral donors wait to see signs of the government's commitment

to free and fair elections before pledging funds, diplomats and other observers are

divided on whether the elections will be held on time.

"I personally think elections will happen in May," said one ASEAN diplomat,

while adding that it was too early to decide whether the polls "will be acceptable

to the international community".

The latest draft of the political parties law, sent for debate by MPs, has done little

to allay the concerns of some.

Human rights workers and foreign observers have taken issue with the law's requirement

that prospective parties have to garner 5,000 member signatures from 10 provinces,

and pay $3,000, for registration by the government.

"In the Constitution, you have the very liberal Article 42, which allows every

citizen to set up a political party. If you ask them to provide names of 5,000 members,

it's just too much. It does not seem constitutional," said Peter Schier, country

representative of the democracy-building Konrad Adenauer Foundation.

Another observer, a human rights worker, noted that "the Ministry of Interior

and the government have a lot of power to accept or not the registration of new political

parties".

This could have implications for parties which are divided - which include Funcinpec,

the Buddhist Liberal Democratic Party and the Khmer Nation Party. Since the draft

law stipulates that a name and logo can be used by only one party, the government

will effectively have the power to decide which faction will have the right to use

them.

The draft law sent to the National Assembly also contains one notable omission from

the original one drafted by the Ministry of Interior, after the Council of Ministers

deleted a proposed provision barring police and military from political party membership.

One Cambodian observer said the deletion was a blow to attempts to depoliticize the

military and police. "If each political party has its own army, it means fighting,

very simple," he said. "If you've got guns and money, you have power."

Another crucial part of the legislative framework for the 1998 ballot - the draft

election law, governing how the elections will be run - has already been strongly

criticized.

The main sticking point with the law is the independence of the National Election

Commission. Ministry of Interior proposals for the commission's membership and budget

to be approved by MPs were also removed by the Council of Ministers.

"As the Council of Ministers is completely in the grip of the Second Prime Minister,

they will try to make decisions that will not lead to free and fair elections,"

said one foreign observer, alleging the government was using the council to rig the

elections.

"The minimum requirement [for donor election funding] is an independent election

commission, which would mean substantial changes to the law," said one diplomatic

source.

The election law is currently before the National Assembly's legislative commission

prior to being debated. While both it and the political party law can be changed

by MPs, analysts doubt that there will be significant changes.

MP Thach Reng - the so-called "opposition of one" in the assembly - has

criticized the drafts and even called for the parties law to be sent back to the

legislative commission for review, but won little support for his position.

Noting the lack of opposition in Cambodia, some donors are insisting on the safe

return of about 20 self-exiled opposition figures as a condition for election funding.

"For the elections to be credible and easier for the international community

to accept, there must be full participation of all political parties," said

an ASEAN diplomat.

The return of deposed First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh is a key issue

for some donors, including Japan, Cambodia's largest bilateral funder. A Japanese

embassy source confirmed that Japan asked visiting Interior Minister Sar Kheng this

week for government assurances of "the safe return of the politicians... to

participate in the next elections, including Prince Ranariddh."

According to the source, Sar Kheng told the Japanese that the exiles could return,

but the Prince must face criminal charges. Asked if Japanese funding would turn on

Ranariddh's safe return, the source said: "We didn't mention that really."

Under pressure from the United Nations and ASEAN, National Assembly president Chea

Sim (CPP) suggested Oct 13 that MPs would not pass the political parties and election

laws until November, which would give all the exiles time to return.

However, two days later Second Prime Minister Hun Sen declared: "The Cambodian

people, National Assembly, and government are not the hostage of the twenty self-exiled

opponents abroad, and we are not the hostage of any country, we don't need to delay

the debate on the election law."

As well as the issue of exiled politicians, other donor concerns include the climate

of impunity over political violence and, in particular, the lack of action over the

July 7 execution of Funcinpec official Ho Sok.

"We've all raised the Ho Sok issue... everybody [in government] knows what our

concerns are," said one Western diplomat.

A list being circulated among Phnom Penh diplomats suggests conditions that the government

should meet in order to receive election funding. The conditions include prosecution

of the perpetrators of post-coup executions and the March 30 grenade attack, as well

as changes to the draft laws, a cease-fire with the Funcinpec resistance and the

safe return of exiles.

One Western diplomat, however, was loath to suggest that donors would impose "conditions",

saying: "Some things are to be taken into account, but there's never been an

agreed policy of conditionality among donors. That would be gross interference in

the internal affairs of Cambodia."

Yet other analysts argue that donor conditions are not interference. "The Cambodians

are sovereign to decide what kind of elections they want, but donors are sovereign

too when it comes to a decision to support elections. We're responsible to our taxpayers...

it's nothing to do with meddling," said Peter Schier, stressing that donors

merely wanted Cambodia to abide by its own Constitution and internationally-accepted

election criteria.

A Member of Parliament agreed, saying that the problem for donors is that "our

election law is far different from the Constitution".

One foreign analyst put it more bluntly: "If they weren't asking for money,

we'd have nothing to say."

As the debate continues, the clock is ticking away. Many diplomats and officials

doubt that the government can met the May 23, 1998 poll date. "Time is slipping

by every day - we're getting to the crunch point," said one diplomat.

Another said the May deadline was possible - with the help of foreign funding. "I

am assured... that they can have elections in May - but they will have to be able

to pay for people working long hours."

Even if the elections are in May, the new National Assembly may not be permited to

sit for four months. According to the Constitution, the current assembly cannot be

dissolved until its five-year term ends, which would be in September.

To avoid the scenario of two separate parliaments sitting simultaneously, the Assembly's

legislation commission Oct 7 proposed delaying the elections until September. But,

after an Oct 14 meeting, the commission's vice-chairman, Monh Saphan, said the elections

should go ahead as scheduled but that the new assembly would not convene until September.

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