A new commune administration draft law has aroused concerns among government watchdogs who say the law, which is meant to invest more power in local government, doesn’t go far enough.
According to the new draft, which was taken up for debate Thursday by an interministerial committee, communes will be elected by a preferential party vote, instead of a direct vote for independent candidates, which election watchdogs and NGOs say they prefer.
In addition, communes will remain under the sole authority of the Ministry of the Interior, a move critics say will reinforce the power of the central government.
“I think [the government] talks about decentralization, but it’s not really decentralization,” said Thun Saray, first representative of the Committee For Free and Fair Elections. “They take back control by taking control of the communal administration.”
Critics said the existing preferential system allows a single party to assert control over communes, even with only a slender majority. At present, the CPP holds power in virtually all communes.
“[Commune officials’] obligations will be to the party, but not to their constituencies,” Yeng Virak, deputy representative at NGO Forum said Thursday.
He added that the current draft does not have adequate measures to ensure officials’ accountability and the transparency of their activities.
Thun Saray said he fears that party-based elections at the local- government level will be divisive.
“I worry that the people will have more conflict among themselves…at the grass-roots level,” he said. “They will intimidate, harass or kill each other.”
He said that candidates who stand as individuals would be better known to voters and better equipped to serve their interests.
However, Sum Manit (CPP), secretary of state at the Council of Ministers, said it’s conventional for political parties to be involved in local elections in democratic societies. He added that local, independent candidates may not be qualified for the job.
“There are people who are very popular in the village, but we don’t know if they are competent or if they have enough education,” he said Wednesday. He declined to comment further on the draft.
The watchdog groups said they have not been adequately consulted over the draft, which is set to go before the Council of Ministers next week, an Interior Ministry source said.
By early Thursday, neither NGO forum nor the three election watchdog groups had received a copy of the draft. A copy was obtained by the Cambodia Daily.
Minister of the Council of Ministers Sok An said Wednesday evening he had not yet seen a list of concerns about the draft sent to him by NGO Forum 10 November, 1999, and again on Wednesday. He declined to comment further on the draft.