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Parties finish draft electoral law

Putting a cap on months of negotiations, representatives from the Cambodian People’s Party and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party finalised a draft election reform law on Saturday, dodging a threat from Prime Minister Hun Sen to take the dispute over the law’s provisions to the floor of parliament.

The draft was completed in a top-level meeting at the National Assembly between CNRP president Sam Rainsy and Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Interior Sar Kheng. Both sides made apparent concessions on the disputed provisions, with the CPP agreeing to add two more seats in the National Assembly, and the CNRP allowing a controversial clause that would allow fines to be levied against civil society groups deemed to have made “serious” insults against political parties during the election period, an opposition spokesman said yesterday.

“I absolutely supported the deal with His Excellency Sam Rainsy, and leaders of the two parties worked with responsibility and all the remaining issues were finished,” Kheng told reporters after the meeting.

A joint statement from Rainsy and Kheng also appeared to at least temporarily sidestep a proposal made by Hun Sen for a provision that would force any party that refuses to convene parliament to forfeit its seats, a provision which would prevent the reoccurrence of the opposition’s year-long boycott of parliament after the 2013 election.

“With regards to ensuring the sustainability and regularity of national institutions to prevent deadlock after elections [in the future], the leaders of the two parties have agreed in principle to study this issue and will prepare to include it in some [unspecified] law,” the joint statement says.

The statement also announced a seminar to be convened in the future to allow for outside consultation on the draft law and the law on the new composition of the National Election Committee, which was also agreed to by both parties.

Speaking to reporters on Saturday, Rainsy credited “the culture of dialogue” with the law’s completion.

However, details on the law’s finer points remained scant yesterday. CNRP lawmaker and spokesman Yim Sovann said that the parties had agreed to 10 to 20 million riel (about $2,500 to $5,000) fines for civil society groups or NGOs that insult parties, and that the parties had agreed to add two parliamentary seats in Preah Sihanouk province, but he declined to comment further.

“For other details of the agreement, we will keep them for consultation during the seminar,” he said.

CPP negotiator Bin Chhin could not be reached yesterday.

Despite party leaders’ triumphal tone on Saturday, not everyone was pleased with the new law. Koul Panha, head of the election watchdog Comfrel, expressed concern not only over the clause restricting NGOs – which he called a “double standard” – but also at the general secrecy surrounding the law’s details and the manner in which it was drafted.

“Why do they require civil society organisations to be absolutely neutral while businesses can finance political parties without limit?” he asked. “[NGOs] should not be absolutely neutral. They should be encouraged to do advocacy.”

Panha also questioned the wisdom of allowing political parties who are seeking a leg up in future elections to draft a law on electoral reform, calling it a “conflict of interest”.

“They’re just thinking how they can benefit. They’re not so much thinking about setting a goal … [for] future elections.”

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