Lawmakers Start Debate On Elections

National Assembly debate be­gan Tuesday on one of two commune election laws, nearly three months before lawmakers had expected to discuss legislation governing Cambodia’s commune elections, now tentatively scheduled for early 2002.

The rapid passage of the Khmer Rouge trial law last week cleared the National Assembly’s schedule for debate on the election laws, which Deputy Prime Minister Sar Kheng told Assem­bly members represented a “revolution” in the country’s administration.

Elections of local leadership in Cambodia’s more than 1,600 communes is seen by many as a major component in the country’s attempt to decentralize its sluggish central government.

But many lawmakers, echoing the concerns voiced by Cambo­dian election monitors, said the draft law still gives Phnom Penh too much control over commune leadership. The law debated Tuesday deals with how the communes will be administered once the councils are elected.

One of the most serious flaws with the draft, lawmakers said, is the proposed installation of Interior Ministry-appointed clerks to the commune councils.

The clerks are meant only to offer newly elected commune councils guidance on managing their communes.

But plan opponents fear the clerks would quickly assume more authority and work for the benefit of their Interior Ministry patrons, rather than the commune.

“If we still have central government involvement, the citizens and I are concerned the decentralization policy could be legally undermined,” said Funcinpec law­maker Princess Norodom Vicheara.

Sar Kheng defended the proposed clerks, saying elected commune councils might not be experienced enough to handle their own affairs and would need the central government’s help to  solve problems.

Kek Galabru, who heads one of  Cambodia’s three primary election monitoring groups, disagreed.

“This is not an explanation,” she said, “It’s an excuse. An election means you give autonomy to lo­cal officials. Who is going to have the power—the clerk?”

Kek Galabru also has argued for changes in how candidates are chosen. Under the government’s draft, commune residents vote for political parties that fill commune council rosters with their own members.

Election groups and some lawmakers have argued that candidates should be picked individually rather than by party affiliation.

But the government, with the support of the international community, has pushed the proportional system, saying it encourages even the smallest parties to participate in the elections with some chance of success.

Funcinpec lawmaker Keo Re­my said a multiparty commune council could become hopelessly deadlocked over even the smallest issues and stall local development.

Debate on the draft law continues today. National Assembly Pres­ident Prince Nor­odom Rana­riddh was expected to press lawmakers to work through their afternoons to pass the election bills before their Jan 16 holiday.

But even the unexpectedly fast pace of legislative discussion isn’t enough for election monitors to shake the feeling that the elections are doomed months before they are held.

“I’m still pessimistic. We’re go­ing to have the same problems,” Kek Galabru said.

She said the public’s confidence in a fair election will be lost without a major change in the National Election Committee, the government body established to oversee elections.

The committee was sharply criticized by monitors and the international community during the 1998 elections for unfairly favoring the CPP.

“We have been talking about having commune elections since 1996. The international community has heard all of this before [and is losing interest],” Kek Galabru said.

But even the international community isn’t likely to be a stabilizing force in the commune elections, monitors fear.

“We have been talking about having commune elections since 1996. The international community has heard all of this before [and is losing interest],” Kek Galabru said.

Without major funding from donors to cover the estimated $20 million election price tag, monitors worry that the government will claim the elections too expensive to hold when scheduled. Donors have been reluctant to discuss election funding, saying that more planning has to be done before they commit any money to the process.

“We’ve passed through this way for eight years already. I know the scenario,” Kek Galabru said.



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