Debate began Monday on the long-awaited amendments to the national election law, with many lawmakers expressing concern that the draft proposed by the government won’t help restructure the National Election Committee.
The proposed amendments—72 in all—would create a five-member NEC composed of “dignitaries” selected by the Ministry of Interior, a solution proposed in July by Prime Minister Hun Sen.
But many opposition and Funcinpec lawmakers demanded that an independent selection committee choose the “dignitaries.” Otherwise, they said, the NEC would “inevitably” be biased toward the CPP, since the leaders of the Interior Ministry are members of the ruling party.
“How can we ensure that the Ministry of Interior will select independent and neutral dignitaries if [the ministry] represents the ruling party?” Funcinpec lawmaker Keo Remy asked.
Keo Remy, the most outspoken voice in Monday’s debate, was the principal architect of an earlier NEC reform proposal that called for a partisan committee on the assumption that the three major political parties would balance each others’ influence.
Backed by Funcinpec parliamentarians, that proposal, submitted in April, never made it to the Assembly’s agenda. But Keo Remy used the debate on the government’s draft amendments to raise many of the same ideas.
If the NEC is going to be composed of dignitaries, he said, they should be chosen not by the Interior Ministry but by a special committee composed of representatives of the three main political parties, the bar association and civil society groups.
“By doing this, we can make sure that the dignitaries we get are the most suitable to serve in this important position independently and neutrally,” Keo Remy said.
What, exactly, makes a person a “dignitary” is not defined in the draft amendment. The amendment does state that the chair and deputy chair of the NEC should have political experience. Hun Sen, ordering the draft in mid-July, stated only that members should be educated, well-known Cambodians.
Several other Funcinpec and Sam Rainsy Party parliamentarians voiced support for Keo Remy’s ideas. But CPP co-Minister of Interior Sar Kheng said political parties shouldn’t participate in the process if the NEC is to be truly independent and neutral.
Sar Kheng also said reducing the NEC from 11 members to five, as this draft amendment would do, stands to save the government $600,000.
Further debate focused on the issue of how NEC members would be approved by the Assembly. The government draft has NEC members nominated by the Interior Ministry, then approved by an absolute majority of the Assembly—50 percent plus one vote, or 62 votes.
Keo Remy and other, mostly opposition, lawmakers said this would still allow the CPP, which has 64 Assembly seats, to control the process. “This law requires an absolute majority but the CPP has enough votes with 64 to make whatever decision it wants,” Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Yim Sovann complained.
Keo Remy put it more politely, saying the NEC is too prominent and important a body to be chosen by a simple majority. He and others called for a two-thirds majority instead. Keo Remy compared the NEC to the National Auditing Authority, whose chair has a rank equivalent to that of deputy prime minister and whose members need a two-thirds vote of approval by the Assembly.
Sar Kheng countered with another example, the Constitutional Council—an important, ostensibly independent institution whose members need only a majority vote to be approved. According to the Constitution and internal Assembly rules, only Cabinet appointments require a two-thirds vote of approval, he said.
The voter registration process was also discussed. The draft law would put registration in the hands of commune clerks, who are appointed by the Ministry of Interior. Keo Remy and his supporters said the communes’ elected second deputy chiefs—responsible for administration under the decentralization law—should handle registration.
Before, during and after this year’s commune elections, the NEC was widely criticized—even by some of its own members—for being biased and restricting voters’ access to information.
The draft law being discussed would specifically outlaw vote-buying and guarantee parties equal time on state media for the first time.