The allocation of two new seats to Preah Sihanouk province and absence of seats for Phnom Penh in the recently distributed draft law on electoral reform has prompted concerns that attempts are being made to manipulate the playing field ahead of the 2018 election.
Ou Virak, an independent political analyst and former head of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights, said that the likelihood that both parties were trying to adjust the allocation of seats in their own interest ahead of the 2018 vote was troubling.
Two new seats will be added to Preah Sihanouk province under the law, bringing the total number of seats to 125, while Phnom Penh will see no new seats created despite the Election Law stipulating that the number of seats would be determined based on factors such as population.
“I think that there is gerrymandering going on . . . I wonder why there are no more seats going to Phnom Penh. It’s clearly stated in the Election Law that it should be done by the number of votes, but they have never done any of that,” he said.
Under the current Election Law, the total number of seats and how they are divided between provinces is supposed to be reassessed during every government mandate, however, despite ballooning urbanisation, the number of seats allocated to the capital, a major opposition stronghold, has not changed since 1998.
“It might not just be the [Cambodian People’s Party] but could also be the opposition trying to gain more votes. In the previous law, they said the minimum number of seats should be 120, but each mandate should reallocate more seats,” he added.
“The fact that the CPP refused to add new seats in Phnom Penh is definitely gerrymandering. It should be double that of Prey Veng, double that of Kampong Cham.”
Koul Panha, executive director of election monitor Comfrel, agreed that the decision to add new seats only in Preah Sihanouk was troubling.
“Before, they said they would try to reflect population, economic activity and so on. It’s very strange,” he said. “The current allocation is not based on any formula, it’s just based on political considerations.”
Bin Chhin, spokesman for the CPP, could not be reached yesterday, but last week he told reporters that the criticisms of the law were a matter of opinion. “I cannot go and tell the critics that the law is good and perfect,” he added.
The final drafts, which were approved by the ruling CPP and opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party on Friday, include controversial provisions that would see individuals and non-governmental organisations penalised for “insulting” political parties during the election period.
Many of the provisions, analysts said, are open to interpretation.
Local and foreign NGOs cannot provide interviews, surveys or statements that would be seen to be persuasive or biased towards a particular party. They would also be banned from making statements that “look down” on a party or candidate.
NGOs would also be banned from providing material support to a party or candidate. However, Comfrel’s Panha said this was ironic considering the law made provisions for private interests to fund campaigning.
“There’s a strong possibility of great restriction of freedom of expression. Political parties cannot be criticised,” he said. “Also, regarding civil society during the election cycle, many can be fined for not remaining neutral, and can be fined between [about $2,500 and $5,000] . . . I think that’s very dangerous.”
“But it also gives private financers freedom to fund campaigning and allows the military and judiciary to take part. It legitimises their influence during elections.”
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy and party spokesman Yim Sovann could not be reached for comment yesterday.
The law also includes a proviso that parties winning seats in the assembly would not be able to boycott “free, fair and just” proceedings, an attempt to avoid a repeat of the nearly year-long boycott of parliament by the CNRP after the last election.
The provision was drafted after Prime Minister Hun Sen last month called for it to be added.
But speaking at a ceremony marking International Women’s Day in Phnom Penh yesterday, Hun Sen tried to play down his influence over the negotiations.
“To my critics, the prime minister is always wrong . . . they say I have had an influence over the negotiators. As a political leader, if I have no power, what can I do? People on the street can speak out, so why can’t the prime minister?”