THE commune elections, slated for some time next year, will not be free and fair
- and civil unrest may result - unless radical changes are made to the National Election
Committee (NEC) to eliminate its CPP bias, say election monitors and political analysts.
Dr Lao Mong Hay, Executive Director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, told the
Post that the NEC's composition does not reflect the independence stipulated by law
and he questions the professionalism of many of its members.
The NEC oversees the running of the elections from voter registration through to
the counting of ballots.
There is a growing chorus demanding changes to the NEC - to reduce the number of
members and to limit the influence of political parties on the commission.
Mong Hay said if the NEC had done its job well, and had the trust of the people,
then the violent demonstrations protesting against the results of the 1998 national
elections might have been avoided.
Analysts say the election laws are unclear about when parties gaining seats in the
National Assembly can get representation on the NEC, but if Prime Minister Hun Sen's
interpretation of the law is accepted, the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) - which won 15
National Assembly seats in the 1998 elections - will not be allowed a voice on the
committee for next year's crucial commune elections.
"If the NEC is to function properly it would be in its interest to have new
members [take their positions] as long as possible before the next elections to get
familiar with the workings of the NEC," said Mong Hay.
He said the NEC has been dormant since the last elections, nevertheless its members
still receive their pay - even the ones from the now-defunct Buddhist Liberal Democratic
Party, allied with the CPP, and the Molinaka Party, which lost its one seat in the
National Assembly in 1998.
Mong Hay said the NEC is heavily influenced by the CPP and he believes the committee
will again cave in to political pressure unless changes are made to the membership.
"The NEC is not yet capable of running free and fair elections without foreign
monitoring of the actual elections and the electoral process," he said.
Mong Hay told the Post that in speeches after the 1998 elections the NEC Chairman,
Cheng Phon, said: "Election officials think about free and fair elections, they
don't think about war and peace."
But Mong Hay said: "It is not [Phon's] job to think about war and peace. His
job is to think about free and fair elections."
Mong Hay is seriously concerned about recent acts of political violence at the communes.
"Now there have been murders of members of political parties already, so there
are signs that there will be trouble."
He thinks that, at the very least, there should be a clear proclamation from both
Prime Minister Hun Sen and NEC Chairman Cheng Phon that violence and intimidation
will not be tolerated.
Mong Hay said NGOs should join forces and petition the King, Hun Sen, the NEC, and
party leaders to issue an appeal to all people "to be cool, be calm and prepare
for the communal elections in a peaceful manner and in a spirit of national reconciliation."
The time has come, he said, for the international donor community to let the Government
know they are serious about having free and fair elections in Cambodia
The Chairman of the NEC, Cheng Pong, refused a Post request for an interview, saying
it was "premature" to discuss the issue of NEC reform.
Prime Minister Hun Sen is determined to have a pro-CPP election committee organizing
and overseeing the 2001 commune elections.
In a January 25, 2000 letter to the King, Hun Sen argued that the present membership
of the NEC should remain unchanged until nine months before the next general election
planned for 2003.
The SRP asked the Constitutional Council to examine Hun Sen's interpretation of the
Election Law and his decision not to change the membership of the committee.
The President of the Council, Chan Sok, responded by saying "The case is not
within the competence of the Constitutional Council."
However, the CPP's coalition partner, Funcinpec, also wants a reformed NEC before
the commune elections.
Deputy Prime Minister Tol Lah (Funcinpec), said the NEC should be independent and
neutral and his party is holding informal discussions with the CPP leadership to
urge reforms as soon as possible.
He said the NEC has too many members and the ranks of the committee should be reduced
to four or five - but it should include a representative for the SRP.
"There are irregularities on the NEC. There are representatives of a number
of parties on the committee that should no longer be there," said Tol Lah, adding
that his party does not recognize the NEC's "so-called representative of Funcinpec".
Kek Galabru, the President of the human rights NGO Licadho, and Chairperson of the
election monitoring group NICFEC, said her group is lobbying the Government to reform
the NEC and the electoral system before the commune elections.
"The NEC is not independent, it is not neutral; the ruling party has eight of
the 11 members - it is partisan," she said.
"We want the people of Cambodia to trust the NEC. If they don't have trust,
then they will not accept the results. It is important for the people that the [commune]
elections are seen to be free and fair, but we don't know if the Government will
listen," said Galabru.
She said the international community can play a very important role in promoting
democracy in Cambodia by putting pressure on the Government to reform the committee.
"If we cannot get an independent NEC then there will be problems after the commune
elections," said Galabru.
She said the best option is for an independent, non-partisan election committee.
If that cannot be obtained then at least the three political parties with seats in
the National Assembly should have balanced representation on the NEC.
Sek Sophal, Executive Director for the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (COFFEL),
said his organization recently surveyed 9000 people in the provinces and 80 per cent
of the respondents want a reformed NEC.
Sophal said people will not trust the results of the commune election unless the
committee is changed.
COFFEL's preference is to have no party-appointed members on the committee. "The
NEC members should be neutral and work for the people, not for political parties,"
The Secretary General of the SRP, Eng Chhai Eang, told the Post that fair commune
elections will be impossible with an election committee that favors the CPP.
"It is necessary to have the international community, especially the donor countries,
put pressure on the Government to reform the NEC and Constitutional Council,"
The SRP is gravely concerned that violence and acts of intimidation against their
supporters will escalate in the coming months, he said.
"We see that the CPP does not want to have elections. The CPP is trying to strengthen
their position by authorizing the NEC - which they know is not independent - to run
the commune election," said Eang.
He said because all existing commune chiefs were appointed by the ruling party, the
CPP fears a landslide loss of influence in the countryside if elections are free
One observer of the NEC debate is less than optimistic about the chances of the commission
being reformed and the commune elections being legitimate.
"Many of our rulers were trained in a school which preaches violence and the
use of force. Mao taught that power comes from the barrel of a gun - and they remember