Voter registration is over.
Candidate registration comes next.
And observers say they hope the National Election Committee has learned a few lessons from what went wrong with the first phase so that the second phase of Cambodia’s commune council elections will go more smoothly.
Several dozen representatives of political parties visited NEC headquarters Thursday to learn what they must do to get their slates of candidates legally registered.
There was a lot to learn.
As the political operatives scribbled notes, NEC officials walked them through Chapter 7 of the commune election law, which covers everything from how old a candidate must be (at least 25) to who can’t run (includes monks, criminals, or “crazy” people).
Khlok Prithi, president of Molinaka Naktorsou Khmer (Khmer Resistance Party) called the session “very useful,” though he fears some of the NEC rules will create problems for his party.
“We hope to field candidates in eight provinces, and the NEC requirement that we have an office in each commune where we run a candidate is going to prove very difficult,” he said.
NEC Chairman Chheng Phon told the group a successful election will require the combined efforts of all Cambodians.
“The election is not the job of the NEC alone,” he said. “We want all Cambodians to participate. You have come here today to understand each other, and to learn your obligations.”
He compared organizing the local elections to building Angkor Wat, which he said has such a strong foundation that its towers stand today. “Building democracy is like building the temples,” he said—the proper foundation will preserve the structure for generations.
Most of the morning was spent on technical aspects of the law, with NEC Secretary-General Im Suorsday warning the parties to pay close attention to filing deadlines and legal requirements.
For example, he said, the candidate registration period by law lasts for 50 days, beginning in mid-October. But candidates will have only three days—Oct 14 through Oct 16—to actually register.
The rest of the 50-day period is reserved for appeals by political parties whose candidates are rejected for one reason or another.
Eric Kessler of the National Democratic Institute, which offers technical advice on elections, said that leaving just three days for registration could cause problems for candidates.
“We all saw during the voter registration process how logistical and other hurdles can impact anything which must occur during such a short time frame,” he said.
Flooding, confusion over dates, and shortages of materials caused problems during voter registration and could hinder candidate registration, Kessler said.
Party officials flipped through the inch-thick election law book and asked detailed questions. The law spells out extensive rules for who is eligible to run, how they must register, and how parties can appeal if a candidate is rejected.
Different parties zeroed in on different sections of the law. Senator Ouk Bun Long of the Sam Rainsy Party asked how NEC officials will determine if a candidate is a legal Cambodian citizen.
“We hear reports of substitutions being made on the candidate lists,” he said.
The Sam Rainsy Party has alleged for weeks that an unknown number of ethnic Vietnamese voters—which it claims are more likely to support the ruling CPP—have been allowed to register illegally in some communes.
Im Suorsday said the law requires that candidates be “Khmer nationality at birth,” although it does not spell out how they are to prove that. The law also states that candidates must be literate in the Khmer language.
Kessler said both sections appear to invite trouble. The law doesn’t spell out how officials are supposed to determine whether candidates are literate, or how they prove their nationality.
In theory, that could lead to each of the 1,621 communes coming up with its own interpretation of the law, with some adopting a flexible approach and others requiring extensive documentation.
Given the disputes that broke out during voter registration, Kessler said, it would make more sense for the NEC to allow more than three days for candidate registration—to accommodate possible flooding or other problems—and to spell out clear, uniform rules for establishing nationality and literacy.
He said the appeals process for rejected candidates, while clearly written, places too great a burden on the candidates to prove why they should be allowed to run.
What this means, he said, is that virtually anyone can challenge a candidacy with little or no grounds, forcing the candidate to defend himself or herself.
“During the voter registration process, we found that the appeal process was used effectively to disenfranchise voters who clearly had the legal right to vote,” Kessler said.
“In the case of candidate registration, the same process enables opponents of one party to disrupt or even disqualify the legitimate efforts of another party.”
The NEC forum drew officials from smaller parties in addition to the CPP, Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy Party organizations.
Duong Mealea, wife of Farmers Party President Bun Piset, said the information was clear and helpful, but the party has not yet decided which communes it will contest.
Srun Sokha of the Rice Party said his party will focus on Prey Veng, Svay Rieng and Kompong Chhnang provinces.
The major parties managed to exchange a few barbs at the session. Opposition member Hul Thol complained that CPP street banners in Kompong Chhnang “are confusing people, they think they are traffic signs.”
That may be, said Ork Kimhan of the CPP, but they’re staying up. “If the law had prohibited this, I wouldn’t have done it,” he said. “But the law doesn’t say that.”
He questioned the propriety of “some people who mock other parties and create a bad atmosphere.”