Elections in Cambodia’s more than 1,600 communes will be held Feb 24 of next year, according to government officials, finalizing a schedule for the country’s first local ballot, which has been delayed for years.
Acting head of state Chea Sim on Monday night signed the two pieces of legislation that will push the election process off the ground, Cabinet Chief Chea San said. Chea Sim received a fax from King Norodom Sihanouk Monday authorizing him to sign the laws in the King’s absence, Chea San said.
With Chea Sim’s signature, the government will have 11 months to tackle an enormous logistical undertaking.
Already, the National Election Committee, the national election body, has discussed a number of procedural issues, including candidate registration and the production of tens of thousands of ballots, NEC Deputy Chairman Kassie Neou said.
“Everything is set; we have enough time,” Kassie Neou said.
But he pointed out that there have been few discussions on how the elections, estimated to cost between $20 million and $30 million, will be funded.
“The budget is still a concern. The budget is like the oil needed to start the engine of a ship. This ship will not move without oil,” he said.
The government has pledged to cover about a tenth of the cost of the elections. But donors have been hesitant to discuss funding without a firmer commitment from the government that the elections actually will be held.
Commune elections have been repeatedly delayed since the mid 1990s, according to election monitors, who say the ballot represents a huge threat to the CPP’s monopoly on power.
Virtually all current commune chiefs, many of whom have remained in place since they were installed by the Vietnamese after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, are loyal to the CPP.
The elections are seen by some as a way to create a more politically diverse Cambodia, with localities operating under their own democratically-elected power rather than by orders from the central government.
“The elections will be a measure of how successful our decentralization policies are, of how well democracy will work. This is the starting point,” Kassie Neou said.
But election monitors have become increasingly pessimistic that the elections will do anything to affect change in Cambodia, particularly in rural communes where chiefs have absolute power over the charges.
“The date doesn’t mean a thing in terms of independent and fair elections,” said Chea Vannath, president of the Center for Social Development and president of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections.
Chea Vannath, like most elections monitors, maintains that the election legislation is so flawed it will do nothing to offer Cambodians a chance to freely vote for commune leadership.
Parliamentarians approved legislation earlier this year that bans independent candidates from running for commune council positions. Instead it requires all candidates to belong to a political party.
Monitors have also questioned a provision in the law allowing the Interior Ministry to appoint an administrative clerk in each commune, fearing that, with the backing of the government, clerks will unfairly influence commune leaders.
A civil service test for the 3,000 clerk candidates will be administered March 25, with training beginning in May.
Election legislation also scales back the role of Cambodia’s three main election monitoring organization, forcing them to work through a committee of NGOs rather than on their own.
Chea Vannath acknowledged that setting a date was a step toward holding the elections, but questioned the motives behind the government’s push for a ballot within the year.
“It seems like [Funcinpec wants] to have elections to get a bigger piece of the political pie,” she said.
The CPP and Funcinpec, its political counterpart, have met once to discuss the elections, leading some monitors to speculate that a deal between the two parties for commune positions is being negotiated.