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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Experts recommend local elections be postponed

Experts recommend local elections be postponed

CONSULTANTS working with the Interior Ministry have urged the government to delay

next year's commune or Khum elections and have suggested the poll be held in conjunction

with national elections in 1998.

The recommendation - made by American, Canadian and Australian election experts funded

by their respective governments to work with Cambodian officials- comes amid concern

that planning and the building of institutional capacity for both the local and national

ballots is "way behind" schedule.

At press time, the Royal Government had yet to officially respond to the recommendation

- one of a number of suggestions resulting from a review of draft commune election

legislation being prepared by a committee headed by co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng.

But the option has already received some independent support with one highly placed

source suggesting that holding both ballots together would minimise election related

violence.

"An 'unacceptable' result in the commune elections could result in disruption

to the subsequent national election," the source said.

The consultant's report justified the postponement of communal elections for several

reasons including cost, the lack of progress in building an institutional and legislative

framework within which the election could be held, administrative difficulties and

the likelihood that poor weather may hamper logistics.

Among the concerns raised about the draft Khum electoral legislation were the cost

of poll administration which under current plans would see a polling station for

every 500 people, the lack of established electoral boundaries, and the potential

for bodies charged with supervising the election to favour those who already enjoy

power.

The consultants recommendations also urge the scrapping of four electoral commissions

to be set up under the existing draft law, and their replacement with a single National

Election Commission. This would be responsible for both local and national elections

and would be removed from the direct control of the co-Ministers of Interior and,

at the commune level, local officials.

Instead, the single new body would comprise representatives of the co- Ministers,

one NGO representative, international advisors and representatives of the four parties

currently holding seats in the National Assembly. Parties without members of parliament

will not be represented but the report urged the Commission's workings be transparent

with the right of public access to all decisions enshrined in legislation.

Sources privy to the consultant's recommendations also said they are suggesting the

government hire Cambodians previously employed by Untac to work in the new electoral

commission and consider the use of voting machines as an alternative to ballot boxes.

One foreign diplomat suggested the imperative for efficient and honest elections

over rode questions of timing. "I'm confident the elections will go ahead, even

if they are postponed," he said.

"Both major parties believe they can win a free and fair election and [as a

result] both believe it is in their interest to conduct an election which provides

a legitimate result.

"I'm confident Cambodians can achieve free and fair elections with international

help," he said, referring to both commune and national elections.

However, sources claimed there are significant differences between the two ruling

parties in terms of the level of international help each is seeking.

In a two hour meeting with Alvaro De Soto, the UN's Assistant Secretary General for

Political Affairs, 2nd PM and Cambodian People's Party Vice President Hun Sen reportedly

reaffirmed his commitment to elections run by Cambodians - and said he would limit

the role of the international community to providing technical assistance and only

"some" observers.

But First Prime Minister Norodom Ranariddh's Chief of Cabinet, Ly Thuch, said: "Democracy

is very young in Cambodia... we want the elections to be free and fair and democratic...to

be frank we must have international observers...we need international observers...and

we expect the international community to provide [them]."

Khmer Nation Party leader Sam Rainsy went further: "[The elections] can not

be the same as 1993, but we do need a lot of help...Cambodia does not have the ability

to run a free and fair election...we have the ability to cheat, to produce a travesty

of an election...," he said.

According to Rainsy, the differences also extend to such things as a basic clash

of opinion on the type of electoral system to use in the national election.

The King has reportedly proposed a mixed system of both proportional and majority

representation, while the co-Prime Ministers are said to prefer a straightforward

first-past-the post system.

However, according to Rainsy, the Prime Ministers are yet to agree on exactly what

form of majority system should be adopted.

"Second Prime Minister Hun Sen wants a simple majority system with only one

round of voting while Prince Ranariddh wants a majority system with two rounds of

voting," Rainsy said.

A two round ballot - where the two front running candidates from the first round

compete in a second round of voting in order to establish an absolute majority -

is seen by experts as more representative of voters wishes. However, it has the disadvantages

of complexity and cost.

One source who has been intimately involved with election preparations said these

basic differences of opinion and a lack of communication appeared to provide huge

obstacles for cooperation and had slowed preparations.

"There is a moral if not a legal obligation for all of the partners in the Paris

Peace Accords to take a more proactive role in resolving differences between the

two[major] parties," he said.

However, Alvaro De Soto - who wound up a visit to Cambodia September 3 - said he

had faith in Cambodia's ability to meet the challenge it faced and played down divisions

within the government.

"There is a clear determination on the part of Cambodian authorities...to conduct

this exercise in the consolidation of democracy in the spirit of the Cambodian Constitution...,"

De Soto said.

"It is clear to us that there is a willingness to consider the advice from a

variety of experts...and this advice is being given in accordance with the wish of

Cambodians that they should be the ones that are in charge of these elections."

He conceded, however, that much work needed to be done in building legislative and

institutional structures to support free and fair elections - adding there had been

no further specific requests from the government to the UN other than one earlier

this year seeking its cooperation in coordinating international "technical"

assistance.

"[But] let me say, based on our experience with electoral processes at the United

Nations, [preparations for] elections are always behind schedule...rarely do they

work like clockwork, so I am neither alarmed nor dismayed... its still manageable.

"There is a certain amount of concern...but we are not tearing our hair out.

And, as I said earlier, it is primarily the responsibility of the Cambodians - we

can only point out what their needs are according to our experience.

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