A former judge and municipal court president are set to become new members of the National Election Committee (NEC) when lawmakers meet today for a vote the opposition plans to boycott in protest of the committee’s perceived political bias toward the ruling CPP.
In a letter signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen dated September 7, the government asks the National Assembly to approve Sor Sophary and Sin Dim as the nine-seat NEC’s newest members, according to a copy obtained yesterday.
NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha said that both Mr. Dim and Mr. Sophary were former judges and that Mr. Sophary was formerly president of the Phnom Penh Municipal Court.
They will be replacing Klok Buddhi—a former Funcinpec lawmaker and cabinet director at the Interior Ministry—and Koy Veth—a former deputy director at the Education Ministry.
All other NEC members, including chairman Im Suosdey, who used to be a CPP youth leader, and vice chairwoman Sin Chum Bo, will stay in place, according to the letter.
“All levels of the NEC have been reviewed and strengthened to guarantee the independence and neutrality of this organization to organize the election of lawmakers, senators and councilors below the national level,” the letter states. “Please, National Assembly, review and approve these members immediately.”
Today’s vote at the National Assembly comes ahead of national elections scheduled for July.
Opposition parties and election monitoring groups have long accused the NEC of favoring the ruling CPP.
Both Mr. Suosdey and Em Sophath, a current member of the NEC, are former officials in the CPP-aligned Youth Association of Cambodia. And Havan Sivilay was Interior Minister Sar Kheng’s deputy cabinet chief for seven years before joining the NEC in 2006, according to their online NEC profiles.
Government officials, however, insist the NEC is independent because all members must renounce their party affiliations before taking up their posts.
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, declined to comment on the affiliations of any particular member. But he said the NEC was shrouded in bias and general mistrust due to the levels of secrecy behind how new members are nominated.
“There is no transparency on how they are selected,” he said. “It should be transparent and with the participation of other political parties; otherwise you cannot find independent members.”
Without an open and inclusive selection process, the NEC risks losing the public’s trust, Mr. Panha said. “That’s why the process is very important,” he added.
Cambodia’s election law states that NEC candidates shall be proposed by the Interior Ministry, approved by a majority in the National Assembly and appointed by royal decree at least seven months before an election day.
The law also says that members must be “dignitaries who are competent in politics, have work experience and have good reputation,” but lays out no other criteria on matters such as term limits or details on the selection process.
In recent weeks, the country’s two leading opposition parties have been asking the government to set up a multiparty committee to select the new NEC members. With their proposal repeatedly shut down by the government, the parties announced their plans to boycott today’s vote.
Sam Rainsy Party lawmaker Yim Sovann yesterday said that they planned to honor the threat. With only 29 lawmakers they cannot stop the CPP-dominated Assembly from approving the new NEC candidates but they hope to rob the vote of its legitimacy. With the same NEC chair and vice chair in place, Mr. Sovann said, “the problems will be the same; they will serve the ruling party.”
Appointing two former judges would hardly improve the NEC’s appearance of independence, Mr. Sovann said, referring to the judiciary’s reputation for bias toward the ruling party and corruption in the courts.
A 2010 report by the U.N.’s independent human rights envoy to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, described a judicial system that is both corrupt and politically influenced. In his latest report to the U.N.’s Human Rights Council in Geneva, delivered last month, Mr. Subedi echoed many of the opposition’s thoughts on reforming the NEC. He recommended spelling out its independence in the Constitution, balanced representation from all political parties with seats in the Assembly and giving members fixed terms.
Officials at the Interior Ministry declined to comment on how it selected the two new nominees and referred questions to the ministry spokesman, Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak.
Lt. Gen. Sopheak said he had “no idea” how they were chosen.
“The Ministry of Interior is implementing the procedures provided by law,” he said.