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Gov't moves to deny MPs vote on election body

Gov't moves to deny MPs vote on election body

D RASTIC changes in the most recent draft of the national election law have raised

donor and NGO concerns about the independence of the proposed election coordinating

body.

The draft law, approval of which will allow preparations for May 28 polls to begin,

arrived last Friday at the National Assembly with a provision that the crucial National

Election Commission be government-appointed, without any input from the National

Assembly.

"Donors are poised to participate in elections. But the donor community is waiting

to see the final version of the law, particularly the neutrality, independence and

composition of the Election Commission, as an important element of their funding

decisions," said Paul Matthews, Resident Representative of the United Nations

Development Program (UNDP), which is coordinating election assistance. The commission

is slated to oversee all aspects of the election.

The draft law, first prepared by the Ministry of Interior, was amended by the Council

of Ministers before reaching the National Assembly. Originally, the bill contained

a very different blueprint for the Election Commission: nominees needed approval

of two-thirds of the Assembly, giving the parliament the final say over goverment-nominated

members.

However, as it stands now, the bill effectively freezes the National Assembly out

of the entire commission selection process. The Council of Ministers' draft provides

that the Interior Ministry will nominate members, who will be approved by the Council

of Ministers and finally appointed by Royal decree.

"Before the draft went to the Council of Ministers, donors could live with it,"

said one observer closely watching election-related developments. "But now it

is not as good as before... the key issue is the Election Commission. It should be

taken out of the government setup."

A Western diplomat agreed, expressing concern about the "worrying developments"

since the first draft. Citing the provisions that give the government total control

not just over the nomination process but the commission's budget as well, the diplomat

said, "If you can control the budget and control the membership, you can control

the commission. It's as simple as that.

"The King may have a balancing effect on the strong government control of the

selection process, but theoretically he should accept what the government hands him."

Several Cambodian NGOs held a meeting Sept 17 to discuss their concerns. The participants

agreed that exclusion of the National Assembly from the selection process "does

not enhance the independence of the Commission," said Dr Lao Mong Hay, Director

of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, who attended the meeting.

"We have proposed that the Cambodian Bar Association and the Supreme Council

of Magistracy should propose candidates to the parliament, to be approved by the

parliament to ensure independence," he added.

NGOs would be lobbying sympathetic National Assembly members to change the law, he

said. He also suggested donor countries may exert additional pressure on the Assembly.

Donors are expected to play a large role in Cambodia's elections: the government

has asked the international community to cover about $19 million of the elections'

estimated $21m cost, said UNDP's Matthews. Donors thus feel that they have a right

to express their concerns, he said.

The Western diplomat cautioned that the legal framework in itself was not the sole

consideration for donors. "In Cambodia, the letter of the law and the spirit

of the law can mean something different given the questions of objectivity and justice

in this country... the commission is supposed to include people from each political

party, but since many parties are aligned with the CPP, there is a political imbalance."

A political observer agreed. "The KNP has been taken away from Rainsy, the BLDP

has been taken away from Son Sann, Funcinpec is fractured. What does it mean to have

free and fair elections if non-CPP factions are all compliant with CPP?"

A Japanese embassy source said that Japan, traditionally Cambodia's largest aid donor,

will take the political atmosphere into account in its funding decisions. "One

important factor concerning assistance is whether opposition groups can conduct a

campaign without intimidation."

However, the political observer noted that the donor community is not monolithic.

"Is it fair to expect Cambodia to have fair elections when some of its neighbors

don't? Different countries have different views."

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