Sam Rainsy Party lawmakers Thursday unsuccessfully attacked an article in the draft commune administration law that would allow the Interior Ministry to dismantle commune councils accused of abusing their power.
Lawmakers approved several articles limiting the commune council’s powers despite concerns by opposition members.
Opposition lawmaker Cheam Channy told Assembly members during the third day of debate that the provision allowing dismantling gives the central government too much control over locally elected leaders.
He added that the ministry’s ability to call for new elections runs contrary to Cambodia’s process of decentralizing its Phnom Penh-based government.
“The commune council needs to be elected by the people, so the ministry cannot dismantle it without asking the people,” Cheam Channy said.
But Interior Minister Sar Kheng said commune councils would have to operate within certain guidelines that restrict them primarily to administrative duties.
The councils would also focus on social and economic reforms to further community development, Sar Kheng said.
“The council is not like lawmakers in parliament who can oppose whatever they want. The role of the commune council is not to play political leader,” Sar Kheng said.
Sar Kheng warned that allowing commune councils too much power could result in communes acting almost as independent states within Cambodia—a potential problem even opposition lawmakers acknowledged could threaten national sovereignty.
Most lawmakers agreed that issues of national interest—illegal logging, security and defense, and foreign affairs—should be left to the central government.
Still, Funcinpec lawmaker Monh Saphan said the line dividing commune council and central government duties could become hopelessly blurred and threaten decentralization.
Despite this hesitation from some Assembly members, lawmakers approved several articles limiting the commune council’s powers.
Another provision allowing for the installation of Interior Ministry-approved commune clerks was passed Wednesday afternoon after assurances from ministry officials that these appointees would have no part in commune decision making.
“These clerks are going to do administrative things, paperwork,” Sar Kheng said.
The government has nearly completed training for more than 1,600 clerks who are meant to provide guidance for newly-elected commune councils, which may have little experience in governance.
But opponents of the provision fear the clerks represent too much of a central government presence in the communes and may influence council policies.
Assembly debate on the draft law is expected to continue today, with lawmakers hoping to have the complete law passed by early next week before they leave for recess.
Though delayed for years, elections in Cambodia’s more than 1,600 communes is now tentatively scheduled for early 2002.
All the main political parties claim to have candidates already picked, though Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party have been most active in campaigning.
Despite this early enthusiasm, Cambodian election monitors say they are pessimistic that fair elections can be held with this week’s approval of legislation effectively banning candidates not affiliated with a political party from the ballots.