Though its reform was once heralded as a signature achievement of the so-called culture of dialogue that ended the Kingdom’s postelection political crisis in 2014, the future of the bipartisan National Election Committee (NEC) is in flux.
Thanks to the 2014 agreement between the Cambodia National Rescue Party and the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, the election body is now composed of four members chosen by the opposition and four by the ruling party, with one independent overseer. With the CNRP’s fate in the hands of the Supreme Court, major changes loom, though NEC spokesman Hang Puthea said he does not know if new members will be chosen early if the opposition party is dissolved.
Recent amendments to Cambodia’s election laws would strip the CNRP of all of its elected positions should the Supreme Court rule to dissolve the party, and would redistribute National Assembly seats to a handful of minor parties.
The four members of the NEC nominated by the opposition will not immediately be affected as they renounced party affiliation to join the independent body.
However, once new parties occupy the National Assembly, they will have the right to nominate their own members to the board. Puthea was unsure if that would occur before the end of the existing members’ five-year term.
He added that reports that CNRP-appointed members were considering resignation were “just rumours”.“All of us are still working together . . . and we hope they will continue to work together,” he said.
One CNRP appointee, Rong Chhun, said that such cooperation is impossible if the CNRP is disbanded.
“My stance is that if the CNRP is dissolved I will resign from the NEC,” he said yesterday. “I am working with a neutral body but . . . if there is only one side, how can we be a neutral arbitrator?”
Supreme Court action, and subsequent resignations, could introduce a predicament for the NEC.
“If one or two members walk away from the NEC, the NEC cannot function,” said Yoeurng Sotheara, legal expert at election monitor Comfrel.
Sotheara explained that the NEC members must be replaced by new nominees from a party within the National Assembly. The NEC, meanwhile, is responsible for confirming new members of the National Assembly but would not be able to do so unless its board was full.
“That could be a crisis to the NEC,” Sotheara said.
According to the law, if the “relevant political parties fail to select new members . . . the Permanent Committee of the National Assembly shall choose candidates to fill the vacant positions”. Under the law, the NEC must be a nine-member body.
The NEC in its current form was born out of a concession to the CNRP to make the body more neutral in exchange for an end to its year-long boycott of parliament. But Sebastian Strangio, author of Hun Sen’s Cambodia, said a neutral NEC was always “a temporary concession”.
“Hun Sen never had any intention of . . . allowing the institution to operate in an independent or impartial way,” Strangio said.“The exact legal mechanism is besides the point . . . the CPP will establish control of the institution.”
Meanwhile, one day after the National Assembly passed four amendments to election laws allowing for the redistribution of opposition seats, the Senate yesterday fast tracked the changes.
“The Committee [on Legislation and Justice] will study the . . . law for no longer than five days before forwarding it to the permanent committee to examine and make a decision,” said Senate spokesman Mam Bun Neang.
In a statement, the CNRP called the amendments a “serious violation of the Cambodian Constitution”.
“We call on the international community to think before cooperating with an illegitimate institution,” it said.