After four days of heated debate on proposed amendments to the national election law, the National Assembly on Wednesday passed without major alteration the legislation that will restructure the National Election Committee ahead of next year’s legislative elections.
Of the 101 lawmakers present, 89 voted for the law, and the rest abstained.
Sam Rainsy Party lawmakers walked out of the Assembly in protest before the vote, saying they had been unjustly silenced and not allowed to express dissent over what they said was a bad law.
Along with other critics, including election-monitoring NGOs and members of Funcinpec, the opposition has argued that the law will not improve the NEC, widely regarded as biased toward the ruling party.
The 1998 election law created an 11-member NEC of supposedly neutral people who regulated election campaigns and evaluated election complaints. Before, during and after this year’s Feb 3 commune elections, it was criticized—even by some of its members—for being biased and restricting voters’ access to information.
The amendments, drafted by the Ministry of Interior following an idea from Prime Minister Hun Sen, create a five-member NEC composed of “dignitaries” selected by the Interior Ministry and approved by the Assembly.
Assembly President Prince Norodom Ranariddh—also president of Funcinpec—said this smaller NEC will be more efficient. “The selection [process] is adequate to ensure that the NEC has the least possible connection to political parties,” he said.
But several Funcinpec lawmakers disagreed with the prince, worrying that the Interior Ministry, which they say is controlled by the CPP, will select only “dignitaries” loyal to the ruling party.
The amendments do not define “dignitaries,” stating only that the chair and deputy chair of the committee must have “political ability.”
The dissenting lawmakers also fought a provision that requires a majority of the Assembly to approve NEC nominees. They called for a two-thirds vote requirement instead, saying the CPP, with more than half the seats in the Assembly, could easily summon a simple majority for a biased candidate.
The prince dismissed these concerns. “In a real democracy like England, they use an absolute majority,” he said.
Funcinpec lawmaker Keo Remy said he didn’t vote for the law. “This law looks good, but it reflects very bad things, and too much of it is mysterious,” he said.
Keo Remy in April drafted his own NEC reform proposal. It called for a committee made up of representatives from the three major parties, who would balance each other’s interests, but it was junked when the Hun Sen-backed amendment came along.
“I don’t think this law can help solve the problems we face,” Keo Remy said.
The NEC, he said, is too important an institution to be controlled by a single party. “This NEC is going to select the next members of parliament—it must get support from all the parties,” he said.
Funcinpec legislator Nan Sy also said he didn’t vote for the law, which he said sows the seeds of potential election conflicts.
“I strongly worry that there will be another post-election crisis like the one we had in 1998, when there were killings of monks and students” who protested the election results, he said. “Today’s approval showed the disunity of the Assembly’s political leaders.”
Opposition leader Sam Rainsy claimed Assembly First Vice President Heng Samrin, who co-chaired Wednesday’s session, ignored opposition lawmakers’ requests to speak even though they had formally asked for permission.
“If I had a chance to speak, I would have asked for a delay,” Sam Rainsy said outside the Assembly. “The law we had was very bad, but this new law is even worse than the old one.”