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Eyes turn toward commune elections

Eyes turn toward commune elections

WITH the results of July's general election finally being implemented as the new

government starts its work, Prime Minister Hun Sen now has to look to yet another

poll - commune elections.

"The commune election is very important to let people learn more about democracy,

much more than the general election, because they know who are their representatives

well," said Thun Saray, First Representative of election watchdog COMFREL.

Around 1,600 commune chiefs will be up for election throughout the country. Many

of them have held their posts since 1979 when they were appointed by the government

of the People's Republic of Kampuchea, now the Cambodian People's Party.

"One of the most important things in a provincial Cambodian's life, maybe the

most important thing, is their commune chief," commented a human rights worker,

noting that the chiefs usually wield considerable power.

Although much remains to be decided about the form, scope, and timing of the local

elections, they are a crucial second phase of Cam-bodia's democratic development,

government and NGO officials agree.

Originally scheduled for 1997, the polls were pushed back to focus on the 1998 general

elections. Now, the machinery is slowly being put in place for the local election

process.

The Interior Ministry's two-year-old draft of the commune election law was returned

by the Council of Ministers to the Ministry in July. The draft called for a nominal,

"first-past-the-post" system, but Hun Sen preferred a proportional system

similar to that used in the general elections, according to a ministry source.

"[Hun Sen] raised this issue at the Council of Ministers and asked Interior

to review the draft in order to make progress," said the source. He added that

the review was proceeding as quickly as possible, but could not say when it would

be completed.

Although the source said the NEC was also looking at the law, NEC Secretary-General

Im Suorsdei said: "I don't know yet if the NEC will be given a role in them

or not. We have to wait and see."

Donors may be willing to support the polls, diplomats say, but are waiting to see

what the law looks like. No-one is yet able to say when the election will be held,

although December 1999 is being mooted. Other suggestions reportedly under consideration

are that the elections be held over three years, with one third of the country electing

its chiefs at a time; or that a few "pilot" communes vote first.

Most analysts are hoping for polls all at once, and as soon as practicably possible.

"We very much hope that they will go ahead and have commune elections next year,"

said UN human rights center (COHCHR) director Rosemary McCreery. "They're an

important part of the democratic process because it's very close to the lives of

the people."

Other aspects of the elections are also under review. Hun Sen is said to be soliciting

opinions on whether to elect just a commune chief, or a so-called "commune council".

"The commune council is a CPP idea," said a Western diplomat, explaining

that in any given commune CPP could at least hope to capture some seats on the council.

"It's an opportunity for CPP to still have power even if Funcinpec get the majority

of the votes."

But election insiders say the government is also pondering an Interior-appointed

"commune secretary", which, some worry, could duplicate the role of the

present chiefs and dilute grassroots democracy.

In any event, some human rights workers are concerned that the polls could turn into

nasty local turf battles.

"Some say they worry that commune elections will be violent, because the candidates

are afraid of losing their positions," said Thun Saray. "But if the two

main parties collaborate well with each other, I think perhaps there will be not

a lot of violence."

COMFREL's election networks will observe the running of the polls.

Saray said his observers would be more decentralized and independent than they were

during the general election.

"We try to organize voter education. You must not vote according to intimidation...

you must vote according to your own conscience, otherwise you are a slave to power."

The CPP is looking to minimize problems by casting an eye over its commune chiefs

and perhaps replacing some of those who were "over-zealous" in supporting

the party during the general elections, diplomatic sources say.

"They do want to play the game of democracy... they're pretty confident they

can maintain control," said the Western diplomat.

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