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
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
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
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.