With dozens of civil society groups boycotting the event, the electoral reform working groups from the ruling CPP and opposition CNRP hosted a seminar at the National Assembly on Monday to defend controversial new laws they say will improve the quality of future elections.
Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin and CNRP official Kuoy Bunroeun have for the past seven months led the groups in rewriting the nation’s election laws following a July 22 deal that ended an opposition boycott of parliament that was based on claims the 2013 election was rigged.
The working groups, which first met on August 11, finished drafting a new law to create a bipartisan National Election Committee (NEC) on December 8 and finished redrafting the existing national election law on Friday.
A number of provisions in the reworked election law have come under attack, including its heavy fines for NGOs who “insult” parties or show “bias” during campaigns, but CPP and CNRP officials argued during Monday’s workshop that the new laws represent an improvement.
CNRP spokesman Yem Ponhearith, who was one of the opposition’s negotiators during the redrafting, said the creation of a new NEC with officials from parties other than the CPP would help avoid a repeat of 2013’s fraud.
“Another thing that is very different from the old one is the matter of the voter list. This is a very important point,” Mr. Ponhearith said. “I want to stress to this workshop’s audience that we are making new voter lists with clear identity markers like fingerprints and photographs.”
The opposition lawmaker said biometrics could be used to prevent people appearing on the voter list more than once and thus reduce the scope for voter fraud.
“This is a new thing that can help reduce the issue of duplicate names. We can prevent almost up to 99 percent of duplicate names based on there being fingerprints and photographs attached,” Mr. Ponhearith said.
The new NEC will have nine members—four nominated by the CPP, four by the CNRP and a final “neutral” member who will hold the tie-breaking vote and be selected by both parties.
Ministry of Justice undersecretary of state Koeut Rith, a CPP negotiator, said those who sit on the NEC will lose their right to vote and be required to formally resign as a member of any party to show their neutrality.
“All members of the NEC shall resign from their parties to allow them to be able to fulfill their work. Why do they need to resign? It’s the process to neutralize this institution,” he said.
During the question-and-answer session that followed the presentations from party officials, European Union Ambassador Jean-Francois Cautain rose to the floor to query the need for the national election law’s Article 84.
Among other things, Article 84 bans NGOs from “direct or indirect speech or texts that insult any party or any candidate,” or the “release of any statement…supporting or showing bias to or against any activity or any candidate.”
The article has been among the more controversial provisions in the new law, with civil society organizations—whose staff stand to be fined $2,500 to $5,000 for violations—saying it will have the effect of silencing them during campaigns.
Shortly after Mr. Cautain raised the issue, National Assembly spokesman and CPP lawmaker Chheang Vun rose to the floor under the guise of asking a question before excoriating the E.U. ambassador’s question.
“It’s needed to balance both sides since there are some civil society groups working with political favoritism. They take money from outside to attack the CPP and of course we know that,” he said.
“It seems there is a restriction [on speech] but in fact this draft is written only to show how far the rights of civil society groups go.”
On Sunday, Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia director Koul Panha characterized the reformed election law as worse than the original, citing provisions including extensive new powers for officials to void parties from running and punish official election observers.
However, CNRP lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang joined Mr. Vun in defending the law Monday, saying that those who claim the law is a regression rather than a reform are misguided.
“I have heard some people say the new law is worse than the old law, but I can say that those who have said this have not finished reading the law,” he said.
“There are no restrictions on freedom of expression,” he continued. “It just bans civil society organizations from performing activities with bias. For example, during an election campaign period, if a civil society organization uses its vehicles to campaign for a party, or helps arrange a campaign to serve a party, it is bias.”
Mr. Ponhearith, the CNRP lawmaker, told the audience the new bipartisan NEC will be able to form shortly after the new laws are voted on by the National Assembly—which opposition leader Sam Rainsy has said could happen as early as this month.
“After the new law is put in place for implementation, the permanent committee of the National Assembly will announce the recruitment of candidates wishing to work as members of the NEC, and it will take 10 days until the announcement of candidates,” Mr. Ponhearith said.
Pung Chhiv Kek, president of local human rights group Licadho, has been selected by both the CPP and CNRP as the “neutral” member of the NEC, but it is unclear whether she will accept the position.
Ms. Chhiv Kek publicly accepted the position last year on condition that the job carry with it the same immunity from prosecution afforded to lawmakers, a condition rejected by both the CPP and the CNRP. She would also have to renounce her French and Canadian citizenships due to a new rule preventing dual nationals from serving on the NEC.
If Ms. Chhiv Kek does not accept the position, the CPP and CNRP will have to re-enter negotiations to find another candidate acceptable to both parties.
At a press conference held shortly after Monday’s workshop, the coalition of NGOs calling itself the Electoral Reform Alliance—which led the boycott of Monday’s seminar, claiming it was a farce of a consultation—said more serious public consultations should occur before the drafts are made law.
Mr. Panha, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections director, said at the press conference that it is irresponsible for only two parties to rewrite laws with almost no input from others.
He also slammed the restriction on civil society organizations showing favor to candidates or parties during elections, saying that many NGOs have specific mandates and endorse or help candidates campaign.
“To support a female or a youth candidate would be an offense,” he said. “In brief, they ban us from helping weak politicians and candidates that need civil society organizations to help.”
Mr. Panha also said that some parts of the new election law seem to have an incomprehensible bias against civil society organizations, pointing to the ban on NGOs carrying out “opinion polls that aim to serve any party.”
“Why can’t we conduct surveys just to know each party’s situation?” he asked. “Why can’t NGOs do this?”