D RASTIC changes in the most recent draft of the national election law have raised
donor and NGO concerns about the independence of the proposed election coordinating
The draft law, approval of which will allow preparations for May 28 polls to begin,
arrived last Friday at the National Assembly with a provision that the crucial National
Election Commission be government-appointed, without any input from the National
"Donors are poised to participate in elections. But the donor community is waiting
to see the final version of the law, particularly the neutrality, independence and
composition of the Election Commission, as an important element of their funding
decisions," said Paul Matthews, Resident Representative of the United Nations
Development Program (UNDP), which is coordinating election assistance. The commission
is slated to oversee all aspects of the election.
The draft law, first prepared by the Ministry of Interior, was amended by the Council
of Ministers before reaching the National Assembly. Originally, the bill contained
a very different blueprint for the Election Commission: nominees needed approval
of two-thirds of the Assembly, giving the parliament the final say over goverment-nominated
However, as it stands now, the bill effectively freezes the National Assembly out
of the entire commission selection process. The Council of Ministers' draft provides
that the Interior Ministry will nominate members, who will be approved by the Council
of Ministers and finally appointed by Royal decree.
"Before the draft went to the Council of Ministers, donors could live with it,"
said one observer closely watching election-related developments. "But now it
is not as good as before... the key issue is the Election Commission. It should be
taken out of the government setup."
A Western diplomat agreed, expressing concern about the "worrying developments"
since the first draft. Citing the provisions that give the government total control
not just over the nomination process but the commission's budget as well, the diplomat
said, "If you can control the budget and control the membership, you can control
the commission. It's as simple as that.
"The King may have a balancing effect on the strong government control of the
selection process, but theoretically he should accept what the government hands him."
Several Cambodian NGOs held a meeting Sept 17 to discuss their concerns. The participants
agreed that exclusion of the National Assembly from the selection process "does
not enhance the independence of the Commission," said Dr Lao Mong Hay, Director
of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, who attended the meeting.
"We have proposed that the Cambodian Bar Association and the Supreme Council
of Magistracy should propose candidates to the parliament, to be approved by the
parliament to ensure independence," he added.
NGOs would be lobbying sympathetic National Assembly members to change the law, he
said. He also suggested donor countries may exert additional pressure on the Assembly.
Donors are expected to play a large role in Cambodia's elections: the government
has asked the international community to cover about $19 million of the elections'
estimated $21m cost, said UNDP's Matthews. Donors thus feel that they have a right
to express their concerns, he said.
The Western diplomat cautioned that the legal framework in itself was not the sole
consideration for donors. "In Cambodia, the letter of the law and the spirit
of the law can mean something different given the questions of objectivity and justice
in this country... the commission is supposed to include people from each political
party, but since many parties are aligned with the CPP, there is a political imbalance."
A political observer agreed. "The KNP has been taken away from Rainsy, the BLDP
has been taken away from Son Sann, Funcinpec is fractured. What does it mean to have
free and fair elections if non-CPP factions are all compliant with CPP?"
A Japanese embassy source said that Japan, traditionally Cambodia's largest aid donor,
will take the political atmosphere into account in its funding decisions. "One
important factor concerning assistance is whether opposition groups can conduct a
campaign without intimidation."
However, the political observer noted that the donor community is not monolithic.
"Is it fair to expect Cambodia to have fair elections when some of its neighbors
don't? Different countries have different views."