Election Expert Vows Reform As ‘Neutral’ NEC Member

Hang Puthea, the presumptive “neutral” candidate on the new National Election Committee (NEC), said Wednesday that he would accept the nomination in order to pursue electoral reforms that the CPP and CNRP have failed to achieve.

Mr. Puthea, the long-serving executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free Elections in Cambodia (Nicfec), was named by the parties as their selection for the role on Tuesday after Licadho president Pung Chhiv Kek declined her nomination.

Hang Puthea sits at a coffee shop in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Hang Puthea sits at a coffee shop in Phnom Penh on Wednesday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Ms. Chhiv Kek said it would be “impossible” to carry out her duties with independence due to controversial provisions in the two new election laws.

But Mr. Puthea, who has also been a critic of the legislation, said he was prepared to take the chance, adding that neither the CPP nor CNRP has contacted him since nominating him.

“I have made the decision, but only the two parties have selected me and right now I have no information,” Mr. Puthea said.

“By my experience, I can join the new NEC and try to reform it more than the political parties can. They have enough capacity to reform, but they have not reformed at all. So I will try to reform it,” he said.

“I will coordinate the two parties, I will use my knowledge to change the procedures and regulations for elections and also strongly focus on [making] the voters understand the processes of the election.”

Mr. Puthea did not offer specific reforms he planned to pursue, but his election-monitoring group has previously raised corrupted voter lists with missing and double names, as well as polling booth irregularities, as areas of concern.

The new NEC, which the two parties hope to establish before Khmer New Year in mid-April, will be comprised of four choices from each party and Mr. Puthea as the joint selection holding the tie-breaking vote.

The new election body, which was agreed to in the July 22 deal that ended the CNRP’s post-election parliamentary boycott, will replace the existing NEC that was created in 1998 and has been repeatedly accused of facilitating election fraud in favor of the ruling party.

Mr. Puthea’s decision to accept his nomination to the NEC came after Prime Minister Hun Sen used a speech Wednesday to accuse opposition leader Sam Rainsy of trying to back out of supporting the NGO leader’s selection.

Speaking at the opening of a major new bridge that spans the Mekong River in Stung Treng province, Mr. Hun Sen said Mr. Rainsy equivocated on Mr. Puthea’s selection shortly before it was revealed on Tuesday.

“Everything seemed completely done but then yesterday Sam Rainsy sent a letter,” the prime minister said. “I apologize to Sam Rainsy for this, because I have to explain the matter.”

Mr. Hun Sen read out the letter from Mr. Rainsy, in which the opposition leader says he had received information that Mr. Puthea has severe diabetes and may be unable to fulfill his duties on the NEC due to his medical needs.

“It means that they think that Hang Puthea will die in the next two or three years. It’s a serious insult to Hang Puthea’s life, because he is not more than about 50 years old as far as I know,” Mr. Hun Sen said.

“I seek your pardon that I cannot accept Your Excellency’s request,” he continued. “Firstly, we agreed together through SMS on the candidacy of Hang Puthea.”

“Secondly, I know Hang Puthea does not have diabetes. Even if he had the disease, there would be no law preventing him from standing. It does not matter if it’s diabetes; even if it’s AIDS, he can still stand.”

Mr. Hun Sen said the CPP would only allow Mr. Puthea to be nominated as the neutral NEC member.

“Thus there are two possibilities: There can be a vote, but the candidate must be Hang Puthea, or there will be no need to have a vote,” Mr. Hun Sen said.

Under the new election laws adopted last week, the old NEC, which is dominated by ruling party apparatchiks, will continue to function until the nine members of the new committee are sworn in.

Mr. Puthea said Wednesday that he does not have diabetes and is healthy enough to serve on the new election body.

“I do not have the problem that they said and I do not understand this. Perhaps it is a political game. If the politicians want to play a game with my candidacy, I want to ask why they are doing this,” he said.

Shortly after Mr. Hun Sen’s speech, Mr. Rainsy said by telephone that he is now satisfied that Mr. Puthea does not have a serious illness requiring frequent treatment, and supports his appointment to the NEC.

“We have checked those rumors, and now it is clear in our minds that this is not a serious problem and it is not an obstruction for Hang Puthea to fulfill his position,” the opposition leader said.

Nominations for the new NEC will close Monday, with a meeting between CPP and CNRP lawmakers scheduled at the National Assembly on April 13 to formally select the nine people who will sit on the NEC.

CPP officials have said the ruling party will not reveal its four selections until the nomination period closes, and Mr. Rainsy on Wednesday said the CNRP will be following suit.

“We have those candidates in mind, but as long as they have not submitted their applications, we cannot reveal their names,” he said. “Once they have given the files to the National Assembly, we can reveal them.”

Following the NEC’s establishment, the major reforms promised on July 22 will be complete, and Mr. Hun Sen during his speech Wednesday was already beginning the campaign for the 2017 commune elections and 2018 national election.

“With the CPP, there is peace and development, but with the other party, it’s unclear,” Mr. Hun Sen said, recalling the extensive bank withdrawals and stockpiling of gasoline around the 2013 national election.

“[You] must be clear, because things could be upside down when there’s no CPP,” he said.

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