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Best efforts for grassroots democracy

Best efforts for grassroots democracy

No new laws are ever perfect. Ask any academic or lawyer and they will tell you,

no legislative body anywhere in the world can produce new laws that are crystal clear

and that meet everyone's needs.

Every new law needs clarification and refinement. They need to be tried and tested.

Cambodia's new legislation for our first elected commune councils is a case in point.

Everyone involved tried hard - officials, advisors, legal draftsmen, ministers and

the members of the National Assembly and Senate. Despite their attention to the details,

we know all of us will have to revisit the provisions again at some time in the future.

We will need to do this soon, in fact in the next few weeks, as the sub-decrees and

regulations implementing the new laws are promulgated with the National Election

Committee, the National Committee for Supporting the Communes, various ministries,

and all the other participants in the local elections.

The task for all of us right now is to make the best use we can of the new laws so

we have free and fair elections. We want elected commune councils that are acceptable

to the people that have voted them into power. Later, when the elections are completed

and before the next national elections in 2003, there should be a more measured examination

of Cambodia's election laws and institutions. By then, I hope, we will all have a

better idea of what suits Cambodia with democracy well and truly rooted.

In the meantime, we need to move forward.

I can understand the disappointment of our civil society colleagues that their suggestions

have not been accepted. I expect there are other people, in the political parties

and elsewhere, with their own suggestions who are also disappointed. All of us must

put those disappointments to one side and concentrate on the job in hand.

One disappointment has been the lack of improvement so far at the National Election

Committee (NEC). The NEC needs the best people to do the job. The National Election

Committee is faced with an even more daunting task than the one in 1998. Local elections

are more complex. We need technical expertise. We need to attract international and

local funding. We need to attract the voluntary help of tens of thousands of our

fellow citizens so that the electors' wishes are represented, recorded, and counted

on the day. We need an electoral process that works well for 1,615 separate local

elections.

Please let us strengthen the team to restore the confidence that was lost in 1998.

We can make changes. Article 32 of the 1998 Election Law allows for changes: "The

chairman, vice chairman, and members of the NEC shall serve until they are replaced".

A second area of disappointment is that the new laws in effect disallow non-party

affiliated local people from standing for the new councils. This should be re-examined

for future changes in the law as experience in many countries shows that such people

often make a great contribution, indeed some councils are led by independent candidates.

Cambodia may evolve in the same way.

The task now facing each community is the same as the one I pose for the NEC - how

do we get the best people on board? Here in one very important respect the party

system adopted could work well. Local councils should have far more women members.

Women make up the majority of the rural population. But how can women, busy mothers

and sisters with their many family commitments, get involved except through the established

parties?

The local elections could serve as a very important vehicle for opening up all three

major parties to more women and more members drawn from a wider cross section of

socie! ty. That would be healthy for Cambodia.

I appeal to all my Cambodian compatriots: let us set aside our differences, and work

together to have free, fair, and above all, peaceful elections.

Finally, these elections will be unlike normal local elections. They will be of truly

national importance. They will indicate to the world at large how Cambodia is establishing

local government in order to decentralize its public administration for the first

time in its history. We had national elections in 1993 and 1998. They marked the

first and second steps in our progress towards democracy, but steps that did invite

bloodshed. The local elections next year will be the third step.

Can we make it the first without bloodshed? Maybe. Maybe, if we have the means to

do the job well, to avoid disputes over technicalities, and to embark on sufficient

education and training to allay the fears of all concerned.

I therefore appeal to our international friends, please see these elections in this

wider context. Please see them as key elements for empowering people at local level

and for the country's development, where so much of your funding and effort is targeted.

If you invest well and sufficiently in these elections, you will help us to establish

a permanent capacity to organize elections. Please ask your governments to accord

due priority in your spending plans.

Kassie Neou is Director of the Cambodian Institute of Human Rights and Vice Chairman

of the National Election Committee.

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