Licadho Head Selected for Neutral Seat on Electoral Panel

The CNRP’s 55 elected lawmakers moved a step closer to swearing into their positions in the National Assembly on Monday, with leaders of the opposition party and the ruling CPP settling on the president of rights group Licadho as the “consensus” member of the new electoral commission.

The CPP and CNRP last Tuesday cut a deal to end the opposition’s 10-month boycott of parliament in exchange for an overhaul of the National Election Committee (NEC), deciding to form a new body composed of four officials from both parties and a ninth member selected by both.

Prime Minister Hun Sen and CNRP President Sam Rainsy speak in the National Assembly on Monday after a special session called to validate Mr. Rainsy's ascension to the CNRP's list of incoming lawmakers-elect. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Prime Minister Hun Sen and CNRP President Sam Rainsy speak in the National Assembly on Monday after a special session called to validate Mr. Rainsy’s ascension to the CNRP’s list of incoming lawmakers-elect. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Both parties confirmed Monday that Pung Chhiv Kek, a founder and president of Licadho, had been approved as the neutral member, who will hold the deciding vote and direct the commission.

“The two parties have agreed to choose her but I do not know any further details on whether or not she accepts this,” senior CPP lawmaker and party spokesman Cheam Yeap said Monday morning.

Ms. Chhiv Kek could not be reached for comment, but Licadho’s senior technical adviser Am Sam Ath said the NGO’s long-serving president had told both parties she was prepared to accept the position.

But Mr. Sam Ath said Ms. Chhiv Kek had laid down conditions to Prime Minister Hun Sen and opposition leader Sam Rainsy.

“There are three key things she is asking for,” he said. “Firstly, if the NEC is a new NEC, it must firmly ensure its independence and neutrality. Second is that the NEC must not be under any other body, and have immunity and autonomous rights in making its decisions.”

“Thirdly, the NEC [shall] have the right to recruit experts to manage and control its work, and especially the NEC shall have the right to receive independent funds and donations locally and internationally and autonomous rights in using the funds,” Mr. Sam Ath said.

CNRP President Sam Rainsy said he had received the letter from Ms. Chhiv Kek and had replied, consenting to each of the conditions.

“I have received that letter from the president of Licadho and I have replied to her. She addressed the letter to [CNRP Vice President] Kem Sokha and I, and both of us accept the demands and we said in all circumstances we will ensure that her demands be met,” he said.

Mr. Yeap, the CPP spokesman, said he was not sure if Mr. Hun Sen had received Ms. Chhiv Kek’s letter but said her demands were sensible.

“Samdech Techo Hun Sen announced already today that he has accepted her, so I do not think Samdech will disagree with her conditions,” Mr. Yeap said.

“From my point of view, the most important thing is to place the NEC as a constitutional body. The two parties have already agreed to put it in the Constitution to solve the political crisis,” he continued.

“That covers everything, in terms of independence, neutrality and autonomous rights on funding and recruitment of expert staff.”

The selection of Ms. Chhiv Kek as the “consensus” member of the new electoral commission removed the final stumbling block in the talks between the parties to work out the details of last week’s deal.

Under the deal signed by Mr. Hun Sen and Mr. Rainsy, if the parties were unable to settle on the final “consensus” candidate, the NEC, which was created in January 1998 and has since been dominated by ruling-party apparatchiks, would continue to exist in its present form.

Officials from the CNRP have over the past week offered varying accounts of when the party’s lawmakers-elect will be sworn in, with estimates varying from last Friday to another two weeks’ time.

Mr. Rainsy said that Ms. Chhiv Kek’s selection means that only technical talks, which started Monday and are set to resume today, stand in the way of the opposition being sworn in to the National Assembly.

“I would say days at most,” Mr. Rainsy said.

“What remains to be done is the draft of the amendments to the internal rules of the National Assembly, to the election law and to the Constitution, so there will be three drafts and three separate working groups working on drafting those agreements,” he explained.

Former CNRP lawmaker-elect Kuoy Bunroeun, who stepped aside from his elected position to allow Mr. Rainsy to become a lawmaker and is now set to become a member of the new election commission, said he was not sure when the technical talks will conclude.

“My working group will meet the CPP’s working group led by His Excellency [Deputy Prime Minister] Bin Chhin to discuss the 14 points related to amending the election law that the technical groups of the two parties have agreed on in previous talks,” Mr. Bunroeun said.

“Since we have the spirit and commitment in the talks, there will be an agreement reached soon and those amendments shall be done before we go to the swearing-in ceremony,” he explained.

CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the opposition’s other three election commissioners have not yet been selected by the party.

Interior Ministry Secretary of State Prum Sokha, who is leading the CPP’s working group on constitutional reforms, said the ruling party had also not yet selected any of its four new commissioners.

Ms. Chhiv Kek founded Licadho as a human rights group in 1992 and has since served as its president.

After spending years in exile in France, in the 1980s Ms. Chhiv Kek helped broker talks between Mr. Hun Sen and then-Prince Norodom Sihanouk that helped end the country’s civil war in 1991.

Ms. Chhiv Kek also comes from a long line of prominent public figures. Her cousin, Pung Kheav Se, is an “okhna” who founded Canadia Bank upon his return to Cambodia in 1991 and is still its director.

Ms. Chhiv Kek’s father, Pung Peng Cheng, died in 2001 but was appointed to the Constitutional Council of Cambodia in the 1990s. He had previously served as director of then-Prince Sihanouk’s cabinet from 1972 to 1975 and from 1979 to 1993.

Her mother, Tong Siv Eng, also died in 2001. She was the first woman to serve in the National Assembly, being elected as lawmaker for Kandal province in the 1958 national election. She served as health minister and social action minister under Prince Sihanouk in the 1960s.

National Democratic Institute country director Laura Thornton, who has played a central role in a coalition of NGOs known as the Election Reform Alliance, described Ms. Chhiv Kek as a “talented, neutral and respected statesperson” who would be an asset to the new NEC.

But Ms. Thornton cautioned against optimism over the consensus reached by Mr. Hun Sen and Mr. Rainsy to select Ms. Chhiv Kek. “Appointing the ninth commissioner to the NEC has not addressed primary concerns about delivering real electoral reform,” she said.

“There are concerns that without agreement on these essential points first, the drafting of constitutional provisions…could meet deadlock or simply languish in the [National Assembly] for years to come.”,

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