Your article of September 15, "Unfair elections feared from CPP bias",
highlights the single most important obstacle to holding credible local elections:
a partisan National Election Committee.
A look back at the bloody summer of 1998 should remind all Cambodians that most of
the problems in the flawed parliamentary elections could be traced back to the NEC.
Contrary to the views of some in the international community, the Democracy Square
demonstrations in August and September of 1998 were not driven by the disappointment
of sore losers. Rather, protests were driven by anger directed at an NEC that refused
to follow the law that required them to respond to all complaints promptly.
In accordance with article 114 of the Election Law, political parties filed, legally
and completely, hundreds of election-related complaints. The NEC was legally obliged
to answer these complaints within 48 hours. This obligation was flagrantly ignored
and the complaints never answered.
Rather than following the law, the NEC chose to protect the interests of the ruling
CPP to which eight of its 11 members are tied. This blatantly partisan inaction led
directly to one month of popular protests which were suddenly halted when the CPP
violently cleared Democracy Square, killing dozens of idealistic young monks and
students whose bodies were later found in shallow graves or floating in Phnom Penh's
rivers. Sadly, many seem to have already forgotten the murder of these protesters.
Had the NEC been a genuine nonpartisan body, or a body balanced among the parliamentary
parties - as has been recommended to this newspaper by Lao Mong Hay and Kek Galabru
- there would have been many differences in the administration of the 1998 election:
provincial and commune election committees would not have been dominated by the CPP,
giving independent and opposition activists a stake and a voice in the administration
of fair elections; individual NEC members could have stood up and publicly decried
efforts to ignore complaints, withhold vote totals or prearrange election results;
and voters and opposition parties would have confidence in the institutions of the
election, thereby leading them to use legal channels to resolve disputes, rather
than being forced into the streets.
Cambodian NGOs have commented on a number of the massive flaws in the proposed election
framework including: restrictions on the ability of domestic groups to independently
monitor the election; impediments to the participation of small parties and independent
candidates; and continued control over elected commune councils by the unelected
Interior Ministry. These issues must be addressed. However, the experience of 1998
shows that changing the NEC must be the top priority.
Make no mistake: the burden of responsibility for overhauling the NEC lies squarely
with Hun Sen. He may try to pass responsibility for commune election legislation
to the National Assembly (which is controlled directly and indirectly by his party);
the sad truth of the matter, however, is that the fate of the NEC is in one man's
Hun Sen's acceptance of genuine changes to the NEC without massive domestic and international
pressure is about as likely as Jiang Zemin leading Falun Gong exercises in Tienanmen
Political parties, NGOs and all conscientious citizens must take up this issue as
the priority for change to the commune election framework.
Without an overhaul of the NEC, all other issues are moot and the elections will
be no better than those of 1998. Most likely they will be worse because of a general
lack of international interest and scrutiny, and greater impunity for acts of cheating
and political violence at the local level.
I add my voice to the growing chorus of those calling for a new NEC and exhort all
Cambodians who want democracy in Cambodia to do the same. Cambodians have endured
much suffering and they deserve better.
- Tim Johnson, Program Officer for Cambodia, International Republican Institute,