In the week before the National Election Committee was formed in December 1997, Chheng Phon predicted he had a tough road ahead.
“If you ask me personally, I must say I do not want this job,” the inaugural boss told the Post from the banks of a canal in Kampot. “I am happy here where it is quiet and I can meditate. The presidency will not be a happy job.”
Phon, the minister of culture and information during the 1980s, was handpicked by Minister of Interior Sar Kheng to oversee the Kingdom’s elections. Phon has long since vacated the position, but the responsibility of selecting who sits on the NEC remains with the Ministry of Interior.
It’s one of many things that independent election monitoring groups and the opposition say needs to change when the NEC – long accused of representing the interests of the ruling Cambodian People’s Party – is overhauled.
“The [composition] of the NEC should be amended,” said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia.
“Appointments shouldn’t go through the Ministry of Interior or the government cabinet. This is something the ruling party controls.”
In meetings on Monday, Prime Minister Hun Sen and CNRP leader Sam Rainsy agreed to reform the NEC, though scant details were offered.
Information Minister Khieu Kanharith said reform must follow “legal procedure” but was adamant the NEC would not be dissolved altogether.
“[The] CPP never said that NEC reform is impossible,” he said in an email. “But replacing the NEC with some extrajudicial institution to supervise the election is impossible.”
Within this framework, Panha said, many changes could – and must – occur. “Checks and balances” between the government and opposition must be established, and a bipartisan committee comprising National Assembly lawmakers must be set up to decide who is appointed to the body.
In addition, a parallel committee on electoral justice or dispute resolution should be formed to ensure complaints about irregularities – something the CNRP continues to maintain cost it victory at the July 28 ballot – are addressed independently of the NEC, Panha said.
Less than a year ago, opposition lawmakers boycotted a vote determining the make-up of the nine-member NEC. All chosen were CPP stalwarts.
CNRP spokesman and lawmaker Yim Sovann said yesterday that his party was also pushing for a permanent body to address election complaints because it was impossible for the NEC to be “referee of both” elections and the complaints surrounding them.
The reform of the NEC, Sovann added, was central to the CNRP’s calls for wider electoral reform. Other demands included changes to media laws and the drafting of new voter lists.
“We need to set up a committee to do the reforming. There have been problems at each election, and we need to look at neighbouring countries such as the Philippines and Thailand.”
If the CNRP is to look further afield to Australia, it will find a country with an electoral commission that has to answer to committees in parliament that include both those in power and the opposition, said Greg Doolan, an Australian Electoral Commission spokesman.
“Following each federal election, the AEC provides submissions to and attends hearings of the Parliament’s Joint Standing Committee on Electoral Matters, which conducts an inquiry into the conduct of the election,” he said.
“Ultimately, if a candidate, political party or ordinary citizen disputes an electoral outcome, they have the right to challenge the results in the High Court.”
Council of Ministers spokesman Phay Siphan said yesterday that the CPP had no official position on what elements of the NEC should be reformed.
“The NEC is mandated by the National Assembly, so a coalition of lawmakers has to sit together and talk about this.”
Panha said civil society groups and international observers had provided a series of recommendations for reform over the past decade, but they had fallen on deaf ears.
“When they’ve talked about reform, they’ve ignored us.”
Tep Nytha, NEC secretary-general, declined to comment on what changes he believed could improve the committee and would not discuss what he believed were the NEC’s strengths and weaknesses.
Nytha conceded that the NEC had let voters down a “very limited” number of times during the election, but said the commission remained independent and transparent.
“As a result, we received the support and encouragement of donor countries … including international observers who witnessed the voting.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ABBY SEIFF