Almost a year after the creation of the new National Election Committee (NEC), its nine members will meet on Friday to select a new secretary-general, the person who will implement its reform agenda ahead of elections in 2017 and 2018.
The installation of a successor to the current secretary-general, Tep Nytha, is meant to mark the last step in the NEC’s transformation from a committee dominated by CPP apparatchiks to a bipartisan body capable of properly administering the upcoming elections.
And so it came as a shock to many last week when Mr. Nytha was named as one of three candidates for the job opening, alongside two relatively low-profile civil society leaders, Heng Monychenda and Ya Navuth.
“The public did not expect that the current secretary-general might be selected again. It’s supposed to be about new people,” said Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, on Wednesday.
“This is very important, as the secretary-general will implement the reforms for voter registration and make sure the conduct of the elections, including voting day and vote counting, is transparent,” he added.
The NEC’s nine members are like a company’s board of directors, making decisions related to elections, while the secretary-general acts as a CEO, taking charge of actually administering the elections.
Mr. Nytha has been the NEC’s secretary-general since 2002, administering the 2003, 2008 and 2013 national elections, which were all marred by claims of fraud. Before that, he served on the CPP’s Youth Propaganda and Education Commission.
After the 2013 national election, the CNRP boycotted parliament for almost a year in protest of what they said was a rigged election. The protests led to the July 2014 deal with the CPP to reform the NEC.
Under the agreement, both the CPP and CNRP were allowed to appoint four committee members to the new NEC, and then had to agree on a “neutral” tie-breaking member. Yet Mr. Nytha has continued temporarily in his role, leading to public expressions of frustration from the opposition.
“If they want confidence from the public, they now should have a nonpartisan figure and I think only the others, Monychenda and Ya Navuth, fit that idea,” said Thun Saray, the head of rights group Adhoc and a prominent civil society leader since the 1980s.
“Tep Nytha,” he added, “he has had a lot of critics in the past, especially at the 2013 election. He goes toward one side, and so I think if he was selected again there would be a problem of credibility for the NEC.
“CPP supporters would support Tep Nytha’s candidacy but the other side would not. For me, the NEC needs to choose someone other than him.”
Concerns about the independence of the new NEC have abounded since even before its official creation, with the CPP convincing the CNRP to accept a provision requiring the prime minister to sign off on changes to its internal rules.
Yet the members of the bipartisan committee have since worked together in relative tranquility, and successfully completed a pilot project for the planned comprehensive rebuilding of the voter list using biometric identification, which is supposed to be finished before the commune elections next year.
NEC chairman Sik Bunhok, who stepped down as a CPP lawmaker early last year, said on Wednesday he and his colleagues understood the need to select a secretary-general who would be seen as legitimate.
“We will do our work in accordance with the law and we will not be pressured by any of the parties, NGOs, institutions or any individual,” Mr. Bunhok said. “The NEC wants to choose someone who will be accepted by all stakeholders. Please wait and see.”
Fellow NEC member Rong Chhun, a former union leader who was one of the CNRP’s four appointees to the body, would not comment on Mr. Nytha’s shortlisting for the position.
“We will consider every opinion raised by the common people and by the civil society groups, but the selection will be made based on the foundation of the law and its procedures,” he said.
Mr. Saray of Adhoc said he knew both Mr. Monychenda and Mr. Navuth personally and believed that both would be well qualified to succeed Mr. Nytha. The former heads Buddhism for Development and the latter, Caram, an AIDS NGO.
“Heng Monychenda has quite good knowledge because he has a diploma from Harvard University and he would have no problem working between the two parties as he has no affiliation,” Mr. Saray said.
“The problem perhaps could be his lack of experience on elections. Ya Navuth too does not have too much experience with election work, but I do not know the criteria they would be looking for,” he added.
Mr. Nytha declined to be interviewed for this article. Both Mr. Monychenda and Mr. Navuth have said they will comment on their candidacies only after the NEC makes its decision, which is meant to be achieved by a consensus of the nine members.
NEC spokesman Hang Puthea, who led the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections before his selection as the “neutral” member of the committee, said the NEC members had been instructed not to reveal their choices until the selection was made on Friday.
“The NEC knows what we should do to gain the trust and confidence of the people,” Mr. Puthea said, adding only that he believed the new secretary-general would not enjoy the same freedom Mr. Nytha had in the past.
“I want to inform you that the present day differs from the past. Now nobody can do anything like riding a horse without the reins being held,” said Mr. Puthea. “The position of secretary-general is just as an assistant to the NEC’s work.”
Yet CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said no matter how little discretionary power the new secretary-general would have, Mr. Nytha would not be an acceptable choice.
“Somebody else who used to organize many problems during elections should leave it to others to come in and rebuild public trust with the institution,” he said.