The National Assembly unanimously passed a bill Wednesday turning the country’s National Election Committee (NEC) into a constitutional body, with CPP lawmakers making good on one of the key promises the ruling party made to the opposition CNRP in a July deal that broke the country’s 10-month political stalemate.
The current NEC is packed mostly with ruling party stalwarts and the CNRP accuses it of persistently throwing elections in favor of the CPP. By enshrining the committee in the Constitution and giving the body its own budget and spending powers, the opposition hopes to make the election commission more independent.
After Wednesday’s vote, CNRP President Sam Rainsy said it was a crucial first step in reforming the country’s deeply flawed electoral system.
“This is a crucial step in moving forward to organize a new NEC that will guarantee democratic, free, just and fair elections next time,” he said. “No matter how long we walk, we need to take the first step. If the first step is good, we hope the other steps will be good.”
Speaking in the assembly, opposition lawmaker Eng Chhay Eang, who helped draft the amendments, thanked his fellow legislators for their broad support.
“It will help end political crises in future elections,” he said, noting that there was no debate over the amendment because it had already been signed off on by 83 of the assembly’s 123 lawmakers, more than the two-thirds support required to change the Constitution.
CPP lawmaker Pen Panha, who also helped draft the changes, read out the amended articles in parliament. One of the articles guarantees the independence of the NEC’s members and its budget and another lays out how its nine members will be chosen.
Until now, members were chosen in secret by the Ministry of Interior. Now, four members will be chosen by the governing party, four members will be selected by the rest of the parties with seats in the assembly, and the ninth will be selected by an unspecified “agreement” among all parties.
Mr. Panha said a third amendment promises to make changes to the country’s election laws.
“To guarantee that the NEC performs its duties with independence and neutrality and guarantees a free and fair election process as a priority, it’s necessary to insert the NEC in a new chapter of Cambodia’s Constitution,” he told the Assembly.
Mr. Chhay Eang said he hoped to see changes to the national election law, and a new law laying out specifics on the management of the new NEC, passed by the end of the year.
The opposition wants to make a raft of changes to the election laws, among them taking the voter registration process out of the hands of commune officials, the vast majority of whom are members of the CPP. Independent observers agreed that the registration process for last year’s elections was deeply flawed and one of the most critical problems with the vote.
In the midst of Wednesday’s Assembly session, and before the vote, Mr. Rainsy and Prime Minister Hun Sen stepped away for an hourlong private meeting.
After the session, Mr. Rainsy said the prime minister had assured him that the controversial Stung Chhay Areng hydropower dam project in Koh Kong province had not yet been approved for construction.
A Chinese construction company recently posted a statement online announcing that it had signed a contract with Sinohydro Resources, the Chinese firm behind the project, fueling speculation among environmental groups opposed to the dam that the Cambodian government had given its approval.
“Samdech Hun Sen told me there has been no decision, so please everyone don’t worry too much,” Mr. Rainsy told reporters. “Samdech mentioned that it can’t be constructed in this mandate.”
Mr. Rainsy declined to say what else they discussed.