Hang Puthea, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections, was selected Tuesday as the “neutral” candidate for the National Election Committee (NEC) following Licadho president Pung Chhiv Kek’s announcement that she would not accept her nomination.
Seven months of negotiations led to the adoption last week of two new laws paving the way for the new NEC, which will consist of four candidates from both the ruling CPP and opposition CNRP, as well as a final member acceptable to both parties.
Ms. Chhiv Kek accepted the “neutral” position on the NEC last year but on Tuesday released a statement reversing her decision, saying that the position on the NEC would not guarantee the independence promised when she had accepted it.
On Tuesday evening, the CPP circulated a letter from Prime Minister Hun Sen to opposition leader Sam Rainsy, dated Sunday, identifying Mr. Puthea as her replacement.
“Following correspondence between Your Excellency and myself by phone messaging on March 29, 2015, our two parties have agreed to choose Hang Puthea, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Nicfec) to be the ninth candidate on the National Election Committee,” Mr. Hun Sen wrote.
“Therefore, please, Your Excellency, review and sign this letter to send it to the National Assembly standing committee after the National Assembly is finished taking applications for candidates on the National Election Committee,” he wrote.
Mr. Rainsy confirmed the selection Tuesday evening.
“I confirm that it is Hang Puthea that will replace Pung Chhiv Kek,” he said, explaining that Mr. Puthea’s experience as an election monitor and NGO director qualified him for the position.
“He is the second best after Pung Chhiv Kek from Licadho…so he is the second in line, so there is nothing surprising,” Mr. Rainsy said.
Mr. Puthea, whose NGO has been among many that have criticized the new election laws, said that neither party had contacted him about the nomination.
“Only the media has asked me about this issue so much today, but I have not received any information from the parties,” he said. “I need time to discuss this with colleagues, because I have not prepared to become a member of the NEC.”
Chhim Phal Virun, a spokesman for the CPP, said the decision to replace Ms. Chhiv Kek with Mr. Puthea was made last week but that the parties decided to keep it from the public until Ms. Chhiv Kek made her decision official.
“In fact, the decision to choose Hang Puthea was made about a week ago after it was unofficially known that Pung Chhiv Kek would be declining the position,” he said.
“Things needed to be kept confidential first for fear of harming the individual’s rights, [but] now she publicly and officially announced her refusal.”
Mr. Phal Virun said Mr. Puthea would have to submit an application to become an NEC commissioner if he accepts the nomination.
“He is a highly educated person with a PhD, and he has a lot of experience and stands very neutral. That is the reason the two parties’ leaders have made the decision to support him to be the ninth member of the NEC,” he said.
Ms. Chhiv Kek, who in the 1980s arranged talks between Prince Norodom Sihanouk and Prime Minister Hun Sen that helped end the country’s civil war, said in her statement that it was with regret that she had decided to decline the seat on the NEC.
“Although it was a great honor to have been chosen for this very important position, I deeply regret I have to decline the offer to be the ninth member of the new NEC,” Ms. Chhiv Kek said.
“I apologize to my fellow compatriots who had faith in me and whom I may have disappointed.”
Ms. Chhiv Kek accepted the position shortly after the July 22 political deal on a number of conditions, including that she be given the immunity from prosecution enjoyed by lawmakers, which was not granted by the parties in the drafting of the new election laws.
What’s more, officials from the CPP and CNRP did include a provision requiring NEC members to give up foreign citizenships, which would have required Ms. Chhiv Kek to renounce her French and Canadian passports and the protections they afford.
Ms. Chhiv Kek’s statement made clear that the expectations she had upon accepting the position were not met in the drafting of the laws.
“At that time, the role of the ninth member was described to me as: ‘…an independent member [who] will bring to this institution the neutrality it needs to organize elections in conformity with the Constitution and the national laws,’” she wrote.
“Today, I conclude that this task has become impossible.”
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said Ms. Chhiv Kek’s decision was understandable given the shortcomings of the new laws.
“I understand her feeling, and the high risk regarding the new laws on the NEC and on National Assembly elections, which have provisions that are not really positive, do not guarantee the freedom of the next elections and place a large burden on the NEC,” he said.
Yet Mr. Panha applauded the choice of Mr. Puthea, whose NGO is part of the Electoral Reform Alliance (ERA), for which Mr. Panha serves as the figurehead.
“I am very happy, as he is a member of ERA as well. He is experienced in how to struggle to fight for election reforms and is now in a position to make decisions and work,” Mr. Panha said.
“I will keep communications with him to make sure he keeps up reforms even with all the problems in the laws,” he added.
“I still hope the new NEC can go in the right direction and provide better elections.”
(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)