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New commune council powers 'misunderstood'

New commune council powers 'misunderstood'

Recent violence targeting commune council candidates from Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy

Party has highlighted another worrying aspect of grassroots politics: a lack of knowledge

about the entire concept of commune councils and their powers.

Human rights groups investigating several cases of violence and threats against political

candidates say ignorance and misgivings about the post-election commune structure

is adding to political conflicts in the run-up to the February, 2002 commune elections.

Sok Samoeun, director of the Cambodian Defenders' Project, says that most politicians

and their supporters at the commune level still believe the elections will be held

only to elect new commune chiefs, an extremely powerful position under the present

setup.

"[They] seem unaware that the role and powers of the commune council chiefs

would be completely different from the [present] CPP-appointed commune chiefs. The

elections are actually being held for between five and 11 commune councillors in

each commune, and [therefore] there is space for many others," Samoeun says.

Having enjoyed complete control since their appointments by the Communist Party in

1979, chiefs have treated communes more as their personal fiefdoms.

Human rights activists and election observers feel that all the energy now being

expended by the mainly CPP cadre is to either protect or capture those fiefdoms by

hook or by crook.

"With the number of constituencies under contest being several times more than

in general elections [1,621 against 122 assembly seats], many more individuals are

involved in a potentially conflicting situation," says Chea Vannath, president

of the Centre for Social Development.

Other observers, like Thun Saray, president of the Cambodian Human Rights and Development

Association (Adhoc) which is a member of the Human Rights Action Committee (HRAC)

representing 18 local human rights organisations, blame the electoral law itself

for the "avoidable" situation.

Under the proportional representation system, the voters cast their ballot for individual

parties. The party that gains the most votes is allocated the majority of the seats

on commune council, including that of the commune chief.

"The commune elections are, therefore, also primarily the elections for commune

chiefs," Saray says, adding that proportional representation will continue to

politicise all spheres of life, including the administrative and economic setups

of the new communes.

While emphasising the need for the education of both voters and commune council candidates,

Samoeun, who is also chairman of the the HRAC, says the candidates need to be told

that the new chiefs would merely lead the councillors (who could be from any of the

three national parties) and that they would be required to consult with the entire

commune council before deciding on any issue.

Observers, however, say it is unrealistic to expect the political parties to provide

education or raise awareness about the structure and powers of the communes among

their commune council candidates or change their autocratic attitudes.

"That's the last thing on their minds," Samoeun says.

"Right now, their priority is to intensify the political propaganda to ensure

that it eventually translates into commune council seats."

Some election monitoring organisations engaged in voter education programmes had

organised a series of meetings in the run-up to the 1998 general election, where

the representatives of all political parties both at the central and provincial level

were given an opportunity to discuss the election law and its meaning for the electoral

process.

The electoral groups suggest that the Ministry of Interior could facilitate similar

awareness programs specifically targeting the political candidates. The program could

include details about the number of seats in each commune, the role and powers of

commune councils, councillors and the commune chiefs, and the process of commune

election.

"Though these may not remove the threat of violence and conflicts, a better

understanding of the whole process can definitely reduce tensions," Panha Koul,

of the election monitoring organis-ation Comfrel, says.

As for continuing incidents of violence and intimidation, the observers feel that

donor countries have the capacity to pressure the government to ensure that the elections

are held in a fair and peaceful way.

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