THE National Assembly's 79-7 vote for approval of the Constitutional Council law
March 19 is just the first in a series of time-consuming hurdles before the Council
can actually meet.
The Council's continued absence has sparked opposition calls for the election to
be delayed beyond July 26.
The Council is supposed to rule on electoral conflicts and the constitutionality
of the nation's laws - something the government has found hard to swallow, according
to Justice Minister Chem Snguon.
Snguon told the Post: "The Assembly members voted for the Council to resolve
the disputes of political parties at the Interior Ministry [even though] the government
did not agree with this idea because the Constitutional Council should only be competent
to deal with disputes directly relating to elections."
If political party disputes had been left to the Interior Ministry, they would have
been heard in the court system, which is widely believed to be under CPP control.
Snguon complained that the wider mandate given to the Council will allow political
parties to use disputes as a pretext to call for delaying elections, by complaining
that the Council's workload is too heavy.
As it stands, the Council has no autonomous budget, no internal rules and only three
of its nine members have been named.
The law leaves the Council's budget in government hands. "The budget is far
from independent as it is to be set by the state. This is a crucial issue. The Constitutional
Council must be [financially] autonomous and independent," opposition Assembly
member Om Radsady said.
The law also avoids detailing the internal workings of the Council, leaving that
to the Council of Ministers - which is widely considered to be favorable to the CPP.
Snguon defended the decisions, explaining that the law could not detail everything
and still be finished in a timely fashion.
Opposition politicians suggested that the Council of Ministers will be able to manipulate
the functioning of the council to its liking, as they claim has been done with the
National Election Commission.
Opposition leaders are demanding changes in the Constitutional Council law to make
decisions on a two-thirds vote rather than the simple majority, which observers expect
the CPP to control.
"Its decisions are based on a simple majority vote, meaning that power resides
in the hands of the few," Radsady said. "The Constitutional Council becomes
another National Election Commission [stacked by the CPP]."
Opposition politician Sam Rainsy, upon returning from a March 24 meeting with ousted
first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh in Bangkok, said he and Ranariddh agreed
that elections should be delayed until October or November while such issues are
As for the actual startup of the Council, it appears unlikely to take place any time
soon. While its inaugural law - which took four years to pass - awaits the signature
of the head of state, hardball politics is expected in the selection of its six remaining
While King Sihanouk has chosen his three appointees, three more are each to be chosen
by the Assembly and the Supreme Council of Magistracy - another judicial body where
there has been rancor over the appointment of its members.
Assembly and magistracy sources say there are no signs of movement on the issue,
but that the Assembly is likely to choose from within its own ranks - a likely contentious
process as candidates can be nominated by only 12 Assembly members. While there is
talk of some "intramural lobbies within the CPP, no names are yet being bandied
around," according to an Assembly source.
The "King's Men" appointments have been criticized because of their advanced
ages: Son Sann is 86, Chau Sen Cocsal Chhum is 92, and Pung Peng Cheng is 81.
Son Sann, who recently returned from nearly a year in Paris where he was brushing
up on constitutional law, acknowledged the criticism of the men who are supposed
to fill a three-year, a six-year and a nine-year term.
"The King has named elders. I cannot say I am young... [but] I am ready to do
my part," he said.
The former prime minister said he hoped that the Assembly will chose members representative
of all parties, rather than a single dominant party that could taint the Council
and result in a loss of credibility for elections and the government.
"I have no preconceptions [over nominations]. They can decide among themselves.
I would hope they would chose one from each party. One from CPP, from Funcinpec and
from us. If not, it won't last. Everything must be done in the name of national reconciliation.
How do you expect a lasting peace without it?"
The three to be chosen by the Council of Magistracy also remain in limbo as that
council has only met sporadically since convening last December.
Critics believe the CPP-friendly members of that council are likely to show a CPP
bias in making its selections.
"They are ready to name all judges from one party, [but] there are also judges
from our party. Funcinpec and our party [must be represented] too," Son Sann
Explaining that he has not been in touch with the King's other appointees since his
return, he added: "I hope we are able to do our proper work. We are waiting
to find out what to do...
"In principle, the Constitutional Council should look at and approve all texts
that affect elections. We will see if that is the case. I am waiting for them to
say what they want, what they say [they want]. I have learned."