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The more things change

A woman casts her vote in Phnom Penh during nationwide commune elections
A woman casts her vote in Phnom Penh during nationwide commune elections last year. HENG CHIVOAN

The more things change

Despite ballooning urbanisation, the allocation of National Assembly seats has not changed since before 1998, effectively lowering the worth of a vote in some of the most opposition-dominated constituencies.

In Phnom Penh, where the opposition holds five of 12 seats, the population has skyrocketed, from just under one million a decade and a half ago to 1.7 million, according to the 1998 census and 2013 National Institute of Statistics (NIS) figures.

Kandal, where the opposition holds four of 11 seats, has grown by a third to 1.4 million. And in Battambang, where the opposition holds a two of the eight seats, the population has jumped by nearly half to 1.17 million.

A decade ago, a new election law was passed that includes a formula to compute both the number of seats in the National Assembly and the allocation by province.

Since then, however, no reallocation of seats has been made.

“It’s been 10 years and there have been significant shifts between populations in provinces. If you’re not shifting seats, you’re underweighting or overweighting votes,” explained Laura Thornton, resident director of the National Democratic Institute.

By law, a special committee drawn up of representatives from parties serving in parliament, the Ministry of Interior and the NIS meets every five years to “to modify the number of seats and allocate seats to each province/municipality”.

“Taking account of demographic, geographic, social and economic factors, the Committee shall report and recommend to the Royal Government whether to increase the number of seats or keep the same number of seats,” reads Article 7 of the Law on the Election of the Members of National Assembly.

The electoral system, it notes, “shall be proportional representation with provincial/municipal constituencies”.

It appears to be anything but.

Son Chhay, one of two opposition lawmakers appointed to the committee, said that when the group met last June, “we just had a really short meeting, and then the CPP decided [there would be] no change in the seats. It was a really quick discussion … about 25 minutes”.

According to their calculations, Chhay said, Phnom Penh would have increased up to between 16 and 20 seats, and at least five provinces that now had a single seat would have doubled.

The calculations appear to bear that out.

Based on the election law formula, there should be 138 seats in parliament if the NIS’s figures from 2013 are used. In Phnom Penh, meanwhile, there should be 16 seats.

Those figures are based on the most conservative estimates, using the population data from the last election. If population data is used from 1998 – the last time such updates were made – the number could be as high as 155 overall and 18 in Phnom Penh.

Chhay said that at previous committee meetings the ruling-party chairman claimed such seat increases were impossible due to budgetary constraints, but at the most recent meeting they didn’t offer a rationale.

Regardless, noted NDI’s Thornton, seats could be reallocated without increasing the overall number.

“You can keep the bottom line the same; but you would need to shift the population seat allocation,” she said. If you don’t do that, however, “a vote of someone in Phnom Penh is worth less than a vote of someone in Mondulkiri. And the principle of the law is that it shouldn’t be the case – the election law wants it to be an equally weighted vote”.

Committee chairman and CPP lawmaker Pen Pannha declined to comment, saying he was too busy to speak yesterday. But National Assembly spokesman Chheang Vun, also a CPP lawmaker, insisted that the decision was based solely on the electoral formulae.

“Last year, we did that [met], and decided that the number of seats would remain at 123 for this election, and that there would be no change in the seat numbers [for each province]. So this mandate, nothing will change,” he said.

While the committee is ostensibly drawn equally from all parties, Chhay argued there was little doubt government officials from the ministries, NIS and NEC would toe ruling-party lines.

“Pannha is a CPP MP; two people from the Ministry of Interior, of course [vote] CPP; then there is NEC, who is also CPP; then Ministry of Planning, who are also CPP; then Funcinpec, who are CPP friends. So they have the upper hand,” he said.

“I think they did some calculations and found that by increasing the seats, only the opposition would benefit from it. So they ignored it,” he added.

Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers – the body tasked with forming the committee – shot down Chhay’s claims, saying the decision was made “according to democracy”.

“If everything is pro-CPP, why does the opposition have seats in the commune,” he asked. “What they accuse us of is groundless … the seat allocation is done scientifically and democratically.”

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