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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Elections - one step forward, two back

Elections - one step forward, two back

ELECTION preparations are stalemated as Funcinpec and CPP wrestle over a draft law,

while any last hopes of a truly independent electoral administration are fading fast.

NGOs are mounting a rearguard action to get a proposed national electoral commission

withdrawn from government control - a move supported by neither Funcinpec or CPP,

despite their other differences over the commission's composition.

The long-awaited draft law on the commune elections - tentatively scheduled to be

held this December - has made its way to the Council of Ministers but remains mired

in political wrangling.

Arrangements for the commune elections - a precursor to national elections due next

year - are already months behind schedule.

As fears mount of further delays to both elections, several observers dismiss the

much-cited problems of technical expertise and money. What is really absent, they

say, is government commitment.

"The whole electoral process - whether we can have peaceful, free, fair elections

- depends entirely on the political will of our co-Prime Ministers," said Dr

Lao Mong Hay of the Khmer Institute for Democracy (KID). "Right now we are walking

around in circles."

"Everybody is ready to roll but the government is holding it up," said

Pok Than, chairman of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (COFFEL).

Most vital of all, according to independent observers, is that the elections be organized

and controlled in a non-partisan manner seen to be free and fair.

There is little sign that either of Cambodia's ruling parties - and particularly

CPP officials at the Ministry of Interior, which has official responsibility for

elections - are willing to surrender their influence.

The proposed commune election law, drafted by the ministry, provides for a National

Electoral Commission of 12 members: the co-Ministers of Interior (as presidents),

six government officials, two delegates of political parties and two NGO representatives.

It also provides for a National Election Monitoring Commission, with a similar composition,

to enforce the law and investigate complaints from voters or candidates.

Members of both commissions would be government-appointed and approved by the National

Assembly.

There are fears that commission places - even those of the NGO representatives -

will effectively be split between Funcinpec and CPP.

"I've heard that one person of a political party - I won't say his name

- said that his party will make sure one NGO representative is a [supporter] of his

party, because they fear the other party will do the same," said Pok Than.

"We are concerned about the role of the NGO representatives, whether it is just

to legitimise what the Ministry of Interior is doing," said Lao Mong Hay, who

suggested the representatives be elected by the NGO community, not appointed by the

government.

Critics fear that, if split between Cambodia's ruling parties, the commissions will

be open to factionalized inertia, or controlled by whichever party is strongest.

The election organization - and results - may not be seen to be fair.

They argue that the commissions must either be withdrawn from government control

or their membership be widened to include many NGO and political party representatives

and technical experts.

"There's two ways to have an independent electoral commission - one is to have

it totally independent from the government, and the other is to have everybody in

it. This does neither," said one foreign analyst of the draft law.

Lao Mong Hay agreed: "If there is to be the political will for free and fair

elections, there must be an independent commission with enough teeth to conduct the

elections."

COFFEL - as well as a similar NGO lobby group, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections

(COMFREL) - advocate a totally independent electoral administration.

In a bid to counter the government's fait accompli control of the electoral process,

COMFREL last week held a conference to try to get the issue back on the agenda for

consideration.

COMFREL proposed a five-member National Electoral Commission, elected by the National

Assembly, of "dignatories who hold higher education degrees and who hold or

have previously held positions of authority and responsibility". The members

would be banned from membership in political parties during their tenure and for

five years afterward.

Co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, spearheading the election preparations, was to

have spoken at the conference but did not show up.

COMFREL had to make the "gesture" of holding the conference, as one observer

put it, but the odds of anyone in the government heeding its call appear remote.

"The idea of COMFREL is far from the reality," said one CPP official involved

with election preparations, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

"The idea of setting up an independent body is unrealistic," the official

said. "In reality, our system is a centralized one. Even if you set up an independent

body, they must rely on district officials, provincial officials - that's the Ministry

of Interior.

"You need people at the grassroots level to cooperate with you. Even UNTAC,

they couldn't get cooperation from all local authorities.

"We must find a middle between the two - not absolutely organized by the government,

not absolutely independent."

Funcinpec, though unhappy with the make-up of the National Electoral Commission as

proposed in the draft law, takes a similar line.

"This body should be the most independent, neutral body," says May Sam

Oeun, head of Funcinpec's election committee. "However, we should not say that

there should not be government officials on it. There should be some...

"The fact is that we have Funcinpec and CPP doing all these things. I'm not

saying that they're not doing a good job, but we want this body to be as non-partisan

as possible. There should be anybody from any political party included, as well as

NGOs and as many citizens, regular people, as possible."

Funcinpec will push for a widening of the commission's membership, May Sam Oeun said,

and would seek other changes to the law too.

The party is also unhappy at the relationship between the National Electoral Commission

and the other proposed body, the National Electoral Monitoring Commission. The draft

law provides for the monitoring commission to be answerable to the other commission.

Funcinpec wants the two bodies to have equal power, and the monitoring commission

to have final say on electoral complaints. CPP, unofficially at least, is now mooting

merging the commissions into a single one.

Meanwhile, the prickliest issue preventing the draft law's progress is CPP's official

policy that election candidates should not be allowed to hold foreign, as well as

Cambodian, citizenship. Many senior Funcinpec officials, including party leader Prince

Norodom Ranariddh, hold dual nationality.

The draft law dodges the matter, simply saying that it "has not yet been agreed

upon", but until it is resolved, the law will do nothing but gather dust.

Funcinpec maintains that any ban on dual nationality is unconstitutional and, as

one party official put it, represents a CPP attack on "the honor of Funcinpec".

Another bone of contention is chapter 10 of the law, which provides for jail sentences

for virtually any violation of the law's sometimes vaguely-worded provisions. Theoretically,

a candidate could go to jail for one year for failing to "maintain a noble morality"

during the election campaign.

"Prince Ranariddh opposes Chapter 10," said May Sam Oeun. "Everywhere

you look at it, the law has criminal penalities. Anything is a crime - this is impossible."

Independent observers say the draft commune law reflects the on-going control of

the electoral process by CPP officials at the Ministry of Interior. "Funcinpec,

as one source said, "doesn't exist".

The draft law was written by a joint Funcinpec-CPP team at the Ministry of Interior,

but CPP effectively hijacked the process, according to one close observer. Funcinpec,

meanwhile, did itself no favors by displaying little interest and failing to turn

up for meetings.

"I've heard a lot of people say that the Funcinpec team is not working,"

concedes May Sam Oeun, "but I don't know.

"If you told me that Funcinpec was not working because they have given up [trying

to influence the Ministry of Interior work], it could be true.

"But the fact is that we do have a draft now on the Prince's desk. If we don't

like it, we ask them to change it."

In the meantime, the clock ticks. After being delayed by one year, the law for commune

elections was then supposed have been completed by last June. A raft of other necessary

laws, including a political party law, have yet to see the light of day.

Meanwhile, the formation of the Constitutional Council and the Supreme Council of

Magistracy - which should be the most senior adjudicators on election conflicts -

continues to be blocked by political bickering.

"These people don't know how to negotiate, to compromise," said Pok Than

(COFFEL) about Funcinpec and CPP.

"We are very worried that this [commune election] can be postponed and then

the national elections can be postponed," said Than. "I don't know if this

is the intention, but it could be an excuse."

Lao Mong Hay of the Khmer Institute of Democracy said: "We know what to do to

conduct free and fair elections peacefully and we can do it. But it's lacking the

political will to do so."

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