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Observers threaten commune election boycott

Observers threaten commune election boycott

Cambodia's three election monitoring organization have threatened to boycott preparations

for the long-delayed commune elections scheduled for early 2002 charging the National

Election Committee (NEC) with political bias and alleging their input is ignored.

The Jan 15 warning was issued jointly by the Neutral and Impartial Committee for

Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC), the Committee for Free and Fair Elections

in Cambodia (COMFREL) and the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (COFFEL) as the

National Assembly initiated debate on the draft commune election draft law. The law

is widely expected to be approved on Jan 19.

"We'll boycott [participating] because if we participate with the coordinating

committee appointed by the NEC we'll lose our position of neutrality," said

COFFEL's President Chea Vannath.

The three elections monitoring organizations (EMOs) called on lawmakers to adjust

the draft law to allow an election system in which voters are provided a choice of

individuals rather than political parties.

The EMOs say the plan is flawed because under Cambodia's proportional system of representation,

the winning party would fill commune election chiefs posts from the ranks of its

own members, shutting out any opposition representation.

"This system is bad because it will mean villagers will be subject to political

pressure from political parties who will seek to gain or maintain political influence

at the grassroots," said Thun Saray. Voting for individuals would allow voters

to concentrate on choosing individuals judged most suitable for the job.

The EMOs also demanded the deletion of draft law Articles 150-158, which authorizes

the creation of a new Election Coordination Committee.

According to the draft law, the Coordination Committee is entrusted with cooperating

with EMOs and other NGOs regarding the management and training of election observers.

In addition, the NEC's Coordination Committee will liase with the NEC to provide

voter education regarding election procedures.

According to Saray, the EMOs decided to boycott cooperation with the proposed Coordination

Committee on the basis that they would lose freedom of expression and would be forced

to compromise [with the Coordinating Committee] on important decisions regarding

the preparation and conduct of the elections.

"The election Coordination Committee is bad," Saray said. "We will

lose the freedom of expression [that we currently enjoy as independent groups]."

The National Election Committee also took a verbal battering from the EMOs, who insisted

that truly free and fair elections require its reform.

Vannath accused the NEC of operating without any clear delineation of the acceptance

of responsibility for electoral problems. Vannath pointed to the NEC's failure to

adequately address complaints of ballot fraud in the 1998 election as an example

of the NEC's fundamental institutional shortcomings.

She said the NEC should be reduced in size from eleven members to five, with the

five members being selected on the basis of talent and neutrality.

"The NEC needs to be reformed because [its] members are not independent and

cannot [be trusted] to deliver a free and fair election," Saray added.

Government reaction to the EMO's criticism of the commune election plans was muted.

Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng said that Cambodia's current political situation

was ideal for a proportional system of representation and rejected EMOs demands that

it be scrapped.

Sar Kheng added that the government was both interested in and attentive to the opinions

of civil society with regard to preparations for the commune elections.

"We pay attention to the opinions of civil society, but we cannot accept their

demands," he said. "We have to adhere to the clear position of the government

because the government is ultimately responsible for what will happen in an election.

I don't think civil society or NGOs will take responsibility if something [negative]

happens because of [their suggested] changes."

Sar Kheng's support for the government's preparations for the commune elections received

support from an unlikely quarter - visiting US Congressman Richard Gephardt.

Gephardt said he and the fellow members of his congressional delegation looked forward

to a "free and fair" commune election in 2002.

"We are pleased that the assembly is writing an election law that will govern

the election [and are] hopeful...there will not be intimidation of voters and [the

election] will not be violent," Gephardt said

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