The election law passed by the National Assembly in 1997 stated that representatives would be elected in proportion to the number of votes their party received.
No mathematical formula was written into the law. Nobody foresaw that how the percentages were calculated might make a big difference in the results.
But in the 1998 general election, the formula used gave the CPP a majority in the National Assembly; a different formula would have denied the CPP that majority. Opposition parties claim the National Election Committee quietly switched the formula in the final draft of its election regulations.
The NEC and an election consultant have said they were just correcting an example illustrating the formula, and that all parties should have understood the formula well before the election.
For Sunday’s commune council elections, Cambodia is using a “list” procedure in which competing parties drew up lists of candidates. Voters go to the polls and choose a party; the seats are then distributed in proportion to the percentage of votes each party receives.
Proportional representation ensures that elected officials reflect political and ethnic disparities of the population. It can give small parties, women and minorities a better chance to win representation. But it also can create a fragmented council, making consensus on policies hard to reach.
Is this the best system for Cambodia? “For countries in transition [such as Cambodia], elections experts often argue that proportional representation works better” because it lets various factions help reconstruct the country, said Mark Stevens, deputy chief observer for the European Union Election Observation Mission.
Others disagree. One expert said using candidate lists forces the candidates to place more emphasis on party politics and less on constituent needs.
Another expert pointed out a person without party affiliation can only run if he or she can find enough candidates to meet elections requirements. In Sunday’s commune council election, in order to appear on ballots a party must nominate two candidates to fill each seat, or 12 candidates in communes which will have six-member councils.
NEC Secretary General Im Suosdey has been giving workshops to elections officials on proportional calculations. Provincial election committees have a computer program to calculate results; staffers only have to enter the number of votes obtained by each party, and the program will calculate seat distribution.
Election staffers have also been trained to check the computer’s results and tabulate the votes by hand if necessary.
To calculate the number of seats each party has won in each commune, election officials will use a combination of two election formulas that are widely used all over the world.
Stefan Krause, an election analyst with the European Union Election Observation Mission, said the first step will be to divide the total number of votes by the number of seats in each commune.
In a hypothetical community of 10,000 voters filling six commune seats, that would work out to a “quota” of 1,667 votes per seat. For every 1,667 votes a party wins, it earns one seat.
The next step is to apply a mathematical formula to figure out how to divide up the odd numbers of votes that don’t add up to one full seat.
Again using the example of a six-seat district with 10,000 voters: Say there are four parties competing, and they split the votes as follows: Party A, 4,200 votes; Party B, 3,100 votes; Party C, 1,500 votes; and Party D, 1,200 votes.
Party A wins two seats outright, based on two sets of 1,667 votes for a total of 3,334 votes; Party B would win one seat and Parties C and D would be shut out at this point, because neither one has the 1,667 votes necessary to claim one seat.
To find out who wins the remaining three seats, you then divide each party’s vote total by the number of seats it has already won, plus one seat.
For Party A, that would be 4,200 divided by 3, or 1,400; Party B, 3,100 divided by 2, or 1,550; Party C remains at 1,500 and Party D at 1,200. The last three seats in this example would go to Party B, Party C and Party A.
Krause has checked figures from the 1998 national elections for each province using both the Cambodian formula and another formula in wide use elsewhere in the world.
The results were the same using both formulas, he said.