PREPARATIONS for next year's scheduled commune elections are unlikely to be finished
on time, raising fears about the chances of national elections being able to be organized
"Technically, it's already too late for 1997," a senior Ministry of Interior
official said last week about the holding of commune elections.
"We are focusing on the local elections but we are also worried about the national
"The politicians, they say elections in 1997 and 1998, but they don't think
about [the technical groundwork]...they must face the realities," said the official,
who requested anonymity.
The commune elections, which the ministry has responsibility for organizing, were
originally scheduled for this year but then delayed until mid-1997.
The ministry is now working to a timetable, produced with the help of a French expert,
which aims for local election preparations to be completed by December 15, 1997.
A host of work has to be done - including the passing of an electoral law, a nationality
law and a law governing political parties, as well as voter registration and education
and the training of election staff - before the elections can be held.
The ministry official said a draft commune electoral law, expected to be sent to
the Council of Ministers in May or June, could take anything from "a few months
to nearly a year" to make its way to the National Assembly.
If there was political bickering over that law or the other ones, the process could
be further delayed, he said.
The ministry had yet to begin work in earnest on the national elections scheduled
for 1998, although much of the work done for the commune elections - such as voter
registration - could also be used for them.
The official disputed that political willpower for elections was lacking, saying
the problems were merely technical ones which could be worsened by political disputes.
Another official, Ok Serei Sopheak, said: "To be frank and sincere, I believe
that nobody knows when we will hold the [commune] elections.
"If there should be any delay, it should be a few months, not six months or
a year, unless there is some political reason.
"We should not be too concerned about the date. We should be concerned about
getting things off the ground quite quickly from now on."
He said the electoral and other laws should be passed soon, as "this is the
commitment of the government to the electoral process."
If there was no progress on the laws, "it will appear that the political will
[for elections] is not there - and that's not true." He noted that both Prime
Ministers had publicly supported the holding of commune and national elections.
Sopheak, an adviser to the CPP co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng, said that technically,
he saw little possibility of a national election being able to be held before 1998.
Funcinpec president and First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh recently suggested
the party could force an early election if it could not secure equal power with CPP
in the coalition government.
"Whatever political decisions they have to make, they will be the ones who have
to make them," Sopheak said of Cambodia's political leaders.
"I'm not a politician. They are. But from a technical point, there are so many
details that need to be resolved, that I don't see any possibility of an early election."
Meanwhile, some NGOs are also growing increasingly worried that the government's
electoral schedule is off track.
A timetable produced by NGOs after a Ministry of Interior electoral conference last
October called for a commune election law to be in place by March this year.
One NGO chief said this week that the government was "hopelessly behind"
in its planning.
"If the commune elections are late and there are changes in personnel there,
that could take several months. These same people will also at the same time be responsible
for arranging national elections on a local level."
He said that theoretically CPP, which controls most communes now, could think that
it would be wiser to delay the commune elections until after the 1998 national election.
Another option was that the two elections be held at the same time, but that was
opposed by some NGOs on the grounds it would be too confusing for many Cambodians
still new to the idea of elections.
A key issue for NGOs was the extent of involvement in the electoral process that
the government was willing to permit them, he said.
So far, control was firmly in the hands of Ministry of Interior committees, which
- though anxious to secure foreign funding for the elections - were far less keen
to have NGO representatives on them.