The major political parties yesterday spent nearly five hours defending two election-related laws that have been criticised as deeply flawed by election watchdogs to an audience of hundreds at the National Assembly.
But the laws’ most vociferous critics – a coalition of NGOs called the Electoral Reform Alliance (ERA) – were not present to probe the parties after boycotting the meeting, which they slammed as a rushed consultation of little substance.
At the event, however – which was attended by some 500 officials, diplomats, civil society representatives, media and members of the public – it was evident that criticisms made publicly by ERA had been heard, even if they wouldn’t necessarily be acted on.
“I have heard that the draft [election] law is worse than the existing law. But those who say that have not read the existing law,” opposition election reform working group member Eng Chhay Eang told the audience.
“The previous law was very [bad].”
European Union Ambassador Jean-Francois Cautain, meanwhile, received a frosty reception from senior ruling party lawmaker Chheang Vun after raising concerns about the amended election law’s restrictions on what NGOs can do or say during the election period.
“It seems that Article 84 may be, to a certain extent, in contradiction or at least challenge Article 41 of your constitution [which guarantees freedom of expression] as well as the commitment of Cambodia in the International Covenant of Civil and Political Rights,” he said during question time.
Article 84 prohibits NGOs from “insulting” any party or candidate and releasing statements that show bias to any party, which groups have said could have a chilling effect on their willingness to speak out about irregularities at election time.
Chheang Vun, a fiery CPP lawmaker, went to the stage to respond to Cautain, despite not being part of his party’s working group.
He cited the example of Comfrel, a watchdog and ERA member, producing videos before the 2013 election that showed supposedly indelible voter ink could be easily removed.
“If civil society does like this, it is not right. We do not want to have a dispute, we just want to tell His Excellency the EU ambassador to know this point,” he said, before alleging many NGOs receive funding from abroad to attack the CPP.
“We know [this]. I completely support this law and we will make another law to control civil society,” he added, possibly referring to a controversial and long awaited NGO law.
In an email yesterday evening, Cautain said that the EU welcomed “the fact that the Joint CPP-CNRP commission will examine all questions and issues raised, and will forward these to their political leaders”.
Working group members took turns yesterday answering questions and defending certain parts of the laws, ranging from voter registration details to how an overhauled National Election Committee (which will be composed of four members from each party and one consensus candidate) would deal with a “deadlock”.
Prum Sokha, a CPP working group member, defended a provision that would ban dual nationals from sitting on the NEC despite the fact that rights activist Pung Chhiv Kek, reportedly the candidate favoured by both parties for the ninth seat, holds three passports.
“The main purpose of setting only one nationality is to get neutrality for the NEC,” he said, citing similar laws in other countries, including the US.
Sokha said questions were raised about where President Barack Obama – whose father was Kenyan – was really born when he was elected in 2008. “If he was born in Kenya, he would not have been eligible for the presidency,” Sokha said.
While the US constitution states that the president must be a “natural born citizen”, the phrase is not specifically defined and has frequently been debated.
In response to a question, the working groups also confirmed that the NEC would not be able to afford to set up polling booths abroad for migrant workers or organise voting on the Thai-Cambodia border.
The ERA held a separate press conference yesterday to air their criticisms and explain why they didn’t join the consultation, saying that as the drafts were only released in full on the weekend, they were not given enough time to prepare.
“We want to meet both the parties to give our ideas. We do not just want to join for a short time,” Cooperation Committee for Cambodia executive director Soeung Sareoun said.