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Election law passes key assembly hurdles

Election law passes key assembly hurdles

AFTER intensive debate, the National Assembly has passed the most controversial chapters

of the national election law, including articles concerning the National Election

Commission (NEC). Concerns about the important body, charged with overseeing the

upcoming polls, now focus on who will be nominated for the posts and whether they

will be approved by the Assembly.

The Assembly, which is working chapter by chapter, has made significant changes in

the 13-chapter draft received from the Council of Ministers. That draft had raised

strong objections from donors and analysts, who claimed the government retained too

much control over the NEC's functions and membership.

On Nov 25, 74 of 89 Assembly members voted for the revised Chapter Three, which addresses

the NEC. Changes include: allowing regulations proposed by the NEC to be approved

by parliament instead of the Council of Ministers; giving the NEC control over the

establishment of provincial election commissions; and giving parliament, not the

Council of Ministers, final approval over NEC members.

The two names currently under consideration to lead the 11-member NEC, according

to officials and diplomats, are those of former State of Cambodia Minister of Culture

Chheng Phon and Khmer Institute for Democracy director Dr Lao Mong Hay. Chheng Phon

was not available at Post press time and Dr Lao declined to comment on whether he

would accept a nomination.

Observers, noting that approval only needs an absolute majority - 61 of the Assembly's

120 votes - and the Cambodian People's Party (CPP) and its allies control more than

half the parliament's votes, question whether the membership approval process will

be nonpartisan.

While the draft is "quite liberal" overall, a two-thirds majority requirement

for NEC members, which had been supported by opposition parliamentarians, would have

been preferable, according to one political analyst.

"The CPP controls more than an absolute majority ... [the provision] could play

into the hands of the CPP in a not fair or equal way."

However, Ministry of Interior spokesman Khieu Sopheak dismissed such criticism. "In

a democratic country, we cannot satisfy one hundred percent of the people all the

time...even in America, President Clinton did not have the majority of the vote."

Donors - who have been asked to provide most of the elections' $21 million cost -

are waiting for the law's enactment and the selection of NEC members before making

their funding decisions, according to diplomatic sources.

"Overall, donors are happy with the law," said one foreign observer closely

tracking election developments, adding that the NEC membership will be the acid test

for the government's commitment to free and fair elections.

"The way they go about picking people from civil society will give an indication

if the will is there."

The National Election Commission (NEC) is slated to include a chair and vice-chair;

four members of political parties; two representatives of the Ministry of Interior;

one NGO delegate; and two ordinary citizens.

Potential NEC members are to be proposed by a draft from the Ministry of Interior

and approved by the Council of Ministers before final confirmation by the Assembly.

A foreign human rights worker expressed reservations: "It's still passing through

the Council of Ministers; in my opinion the Prime Ministers still have a veto right."

The source added that the NEC's inclusion of four representatives from political

parties and two from the Interior Ministry could also tip the balance of the commission

in the government's favor.

Another concern raised by the election law is a provision barring convicted criminals

from running unless they have been "rehabilitated". Observers have objected

to the provision on the grounds that the meaning of "rehabilitation" is

too vague and should contain an explicit reference to a Royal amnesty.

The Assembly, after prolonged debate, left the wording of Article 34 intact - despite

an unusual joint memo from foreign diplomats here suggesting the change. Chapter

Four passed with 76 of 86 votes in favor.

The provision is particularly important as it relates to deposed First Prime Minister

Prince Norodom Ranariddh, who is facing criminal charges in military court. Many

donor nations have made his participation in elections a prerequisite for election

funding.

While barring a convicted felon from standing is not in itself objectionable, "when

this law was made, it seemed it tried to prevent one personality from running. This

is unfortunate," said Pok Than, president of the Center for Social Development.

"The amnesty clause needs to be specified. Without that they can interpret it

any way they want."

One Western diplomat believes the semantics of the law are not important. "The

only way to amnesty someone is if approval comes from [Second Prime Minister] Hun

Sen and [First Prime Minister] Ung Huot ... if they don't want [Ranariddh] to run,

they won't get him an amnesty, not rely on the wording."

However, sources say that open debate at this National Assembly session, which opened

on Oct 28, has been dampened by the political climate in the country.

Asked about intimidation in the Assembly, MP Son Chhay (BLDP-Son Sann) complained

that he had been accused of "defaming the nation" by co-Defense Minister

Tea Banh (CPP) when he mentioned reports of army conscription.

Funcinpec MP Om Radsady also suggested that intimidation on the part of other Assembly

members has had an effect on outspoken parliamentarians, hinting that the election

debate is suffering as a result. "Do you think we will propose names [for the

electoral commission] with the intimidation and the fear ..."

Yet a Western diplomat said that the election law debate was "the most democratic

debate I've witnessed here".

At Post press time, only five of 13 chapters of the election law had been passed,

but parliamentary sources said that the debate could be finished by next week.

National elections are still officially scheduled for May 23, Khieu Sopheak said,

but he acknowledged that experts are suggesting polls could not be sufficiently organized

before July. "If there is a delay, it will be decided by the National Assembly,

and it would not be for political reasons but only for technical reasons."

In the end, Om Radsady believes, the real judge of free and fair elections will be

the people. "The people in the street ... are the true electoral commission.

There is no one else," he said. "Even if the final result is falsified,

we will know the truth."

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