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Paperwork "too late for 1997"

Paperwork "too late for 1997"

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

for 1998.

"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

election preparations.

"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.

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