CAMBODIA's long-delayed commune elections, cited by democracy groups as crucial to
building civil society here, may be coming one step closer to reality as a draft
law approaches completion. However, the draft has been criticized for making drastic
changes in the national administration of polls.
According to the draft, obtained by the Post, commune chiefs - not entire commune
councils, as had been proposed earlier - will be elected by simple majority vote.
All voting will be held on one day (not staggered throughout the country as in one
proposal), but the actual election date is not included in the law.
One major change is in the national oversight of the polls, with drastic alterations
to the National Election Committee and the addition of another national body.
The existing NEC, which was formed in accordance with the 1997 general election law,
has a chair and vice-chair chosen from "eminent Khmer personalities"; two
ordinary citizens; one representative from each party in the Assembly; two officials
from the Interior Ministry; and one NGO representative.
The draft law's NEC, in contrast, would have the Interior Minister as chairman; four
"high-ranking officials'; and two representatives each from political parties
in the Assembly, the Interior Ministry, and NGOs.
"I wonder what the role is of the existing NEC?" mused Thun Saray, First
Representative of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.
"The old NEC should have rolled straight on," said a Western diplomat,
surmising that the change may be to discourage the reforms which some current NEC
members, including vice-chair Kassie Neou, tried unsuccessfully to implement.
Neou, who would seem to have no place on such a new NEC, said he was surprised to
hear of the new draft.
"In principle the NEC should be truly neutral and impartial; its composition
should be made in such a way that it can maintain impartiality," he said.
Along with the new NEC, a National Election Supervising Committee (NESC) will be
formed. This group, which had no counterpart in the 1998 general elections, will
be responsible for "following up the implementation of the election law",
while the NEC is tasked with "implementing" the law.
The NESC will also be in charge of new lower-level bodies, the Provincial and Village
The Western diplomat expressed concern about the proposed new body.
"At best, it's another layer of bureaucracy and officialdom to just confuse
the whole election process further; at worst, it's a smokescreen behind which political
outcomes can be engineered."
The NESC will be: "a high ranking official" as chair; representatives from
each party seated in the Assembly; and two representatives each of seatless parties,
lawyers, NGOs, and Interior Ministry "high ranking officials".
Both the NEC and the NESC memberships are to be proposed by the Minister of Interior,
nominated by the Prime Minister, and approved by the Assembly.
"I would be highly surprised if they [both] didn't come out stacked in favor
of the CPP," said the diplomat.
The relationship between the NESC and the NEC is hazy in the draft; the NESC is responsible
for "advising" the NEC on election work and for receiving complaints. Final
adjudication on complaints is to be done by the NEC, but the NESC is to "advise
the NEC to receive or deny complaints [and] to suspend or recognize voting rights".
The diplomat called the dispute resolution procedures "horribly unclear"and
wondered why the Constitutional Council wasn't even mentioned.
Asked which body would be more powerful, an Interior Ministry official said he did
not know about the proposed NESC.
"I have only heard about this from you," Director-General of Administration
Prach Chann told the Post, although he is on the working group drafting the law.
Thun Saray, although concerned about the changes in national-level administration,
said he was pleased the earlier idea of electing a commune council from slates of
party candidates was dropped.
"I prefer to have a chief of commune election, because it's preferable to have
independent candidates, to depoliticize local organizations."
However, the diplomat wondered if an elected chief may now have free rein to appoint
a commune council without any guidelines, and expressed worry about possible corruption
and unelected local authorities wielding considerable power.
"I don't know if they've abandoned the idea of a commune council altogether,
or whether they'll be appointed; either way it's a bit of a worry."
Chann said the law would
go to the Cabinet in April and elections would be at the end of 1999.