The Ministry of Interior issued a directive on March 17 detailing the selection process for village chiefs, stating that they will be voted in secretly by commune councilors rather than by villagers themselves.
The Committee for Free and Fair Elections and a dozen other NGOs released a statement on Friday decrying the directive for denying villagers the right to choose their own chiefs.
“Such candidates won’t represent or work for the people, but for the commune councils and political parties,” Comfrel Director Koul Panha said Monday.
According to the Interior Ministry directive, commune councilors will choose a minimum of three candidates from each village, from whom the councilors will then elect a chief by secret ballot. The position of chief has an unlimited term.
No date has been set for the first village chief elections, officials said.
A simple majority of commune councilors will be required to elect village chiefs, or if need be, to remove one. If no candidate receives a simple majority, the top two candidates will have a runoff vote.
The directive also instructs councilors to seek at least one female candidate for each village chief position, and states that women will be given the position in case of a tie. If men tie in the runoff, the position will go to the elder of the two. The directive also recommends that a woman be chosen as a deputy village chief if a man wins the chief’s post.
Elected chiefs will choose candidates for deputy and assistant positions, which are then to be forwarded to commune councilors for an election by show of hands.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said the directive abides by the Constitution, which identifies communes as the lowest level of government administration. He said the directive also abides by the law on commune councils, which states that the Interior Ministry should instruct the councils on the selection of village chiefs.
Koul Panha said government had interpreted the law to suit its own ends, and that for villagers to elect their own chiefs would also have been constitutional.
“The unclear law causes problems, and the ruling party can interpret the law for its benefit,” Koul Panha said.
Toch Tol Ponnlok, a UN Development Program project adviser to the Interior Ministry’s department of local administration, maintained that village chiefs did not need to be elected by the people over whom they will govern.
Though long considered the first line of governmental control over the population, and by critics as a lingering and malevolent hangover from the communist 1980s, Toch Tol Ponnlok said that village chiefs were merely assistants to commune councils.
“We have to look at the job description or task to be performed by the village chief. It is to help the commune council,” Toch Tol Ponnlok said. “They have no power,” he added.
Sam Rainsy Party member Mu Sochua disagreed. “The village chief has full power,” Mu Sochua said. “The CPP wants to keep the status quo, because the commune elections are coming up,” she said, adding that commune councilors are becoming the new centers of power.
Village chiefs and senators are now both elected by commune councilors, and a law currently being drafted is believed to also give them the power to choose district councilors.
Mu Sochua, however, also acknowledged that the move to allow commune councilors to elect both village chiefs and district officials may be a symbolic step toward democratization, as those positions were previously appointed by the government.
But a CPP domination of a majority of commune councils means that the ruling party is unlikely to lose much of its hold on village- or district-level government, she said.
“We have to learn to trust the people at the village level,” she added.