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
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
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."