NGOs to Boycott Election Law Workshop

Dozens of NGOs are planning to boycott a workshop Monday to discuss the new election law, saying that the CPP and CNRP have not given them enough time to review the draft and that they do not want to give the event a veneer of legitimacy.

In addition to concerns over the lack of consultation time, Koul Panha, the director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel), said Sunday that the new law contained provisions that would reduce the quality of future polls and give officials unprecedented powers to disqualify parties from entering elections and punish official observers.

Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin and CNRP official Kuoy Bunroeun are set to host a “consultation workshop” at the National Assembly on Monday to discuss the new law with NGOs, but many groups say they are frustrated that the parties did not provide them with a copy of the law until Saturday, giving them only two days to review its content.

“At a meeting of NGOs from the Electoral Reform Alliance and NGO Forum on Friday, most decided not to go,” Adhoc president Thun Saray said Sunday. “It is not a serious consultation workshop. There is no time for discussion, and they did not provide the draft law until Saturday.”

The groups that will boycott include Comfrel, Adhoc, Transparency International Cambodia and the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy has said the parliament will vote on the law this month—alongside a law reforming the National Election Committee (NEC)—but Mr. Panha of Comfrel said far more extensive consultation is needed due to a number of surprises in the draft law released Saturday.

“For example, Article 162 is new,” he said. “It says that offenses committed by representative[s] of parties ‘who have the right to make decisions for the party’ in the party’s bylaws will be offenses committed by the party as an organization.”

Such a provision is troublesome, Mr. Panha said, because Article 156 specifies that a party can be declared ineligible to run if found to have committed such an offense.

The same penalty could apply to violations of articles 68 and 72, which lay out when and how campaigning can be carried out. Among other additions in the new law, parties can only legally hold street rallies on four days in each province during the usually boisterous 21-day official campaign.

Another section in the new law says that the use of racially charged language during a campaign by a party can also lead to a party losing its eligibility.

According to Article 152, the NEC must discipline “anyone who use[s] any means to publicly insult or instigate discrimination on an ethnic person, or a group of a nation or race, or any religion during the election campaign period.”

“The NEC will impose a fine of 10 to 30 million riel [about $2,470 to $7,410] or remove the name of the candidate…and party that commits the offense as stated in Article 152 above,” Article 153 says.

Mr. Rainsy’s opposition has long used anti-Vietnamese rhetoric against the CPP, and has often referred to the ruling party as being subservient to the “yuon,” a Khmer word for Vietnamese people often considered to be derogatory.

Mr. Panha said the current election law only allows the NEC to find candidates ineligible, and does not threaten to ban parties due to offenses committed by members.

“In the old law, they only targeted candidates, but now they are going to target parties as organizations,” Mr. Panha said. “I can imagine how they will make trouble.”

“For example: A representative of a party commits a violation, and there is a complaint to the NEC while the election is ongoing. When the results are released, and you have won some seats, the NEC or the Constitutional Council finds that you committed the offense, and you will be removed and lose your seats because you have no eligibility.”

“This is very dangerous,” Mr. Panha added. “It is new, and it targets the parties contesting the election.”

During the drafting, NGO officials complained about revelations that they would be banned from “insulting” parties. The new law lays down $2,500 to $5,000 fines for those who insult parties.

The article prohibits NGO staff from “direct or indirect speech or texts that insult any party or any candidate,” or the “release of any statement…supporting or showing bias to or against any activity or any candidate.” Publishing “opinion polls that aim to serve any party or candidate” is also banned.

Article 160 of the new draft adds that election observers provided by parties and NGOs must also remain neutral and cannot disturb election officials while observing election processes.

The article says that written warnings and then a fine of between $250 and $2,500 will be laid on “party agents or observers who give advice or place blame on election officers and officers who are counting ballots.”

Mr. Panha said that civil society staff usually play a key role in observing vote counting and publicizing irregularities after an election, and that such activity will be stifled under the new law.

“Even if you just advise a polling station officer, or something like that, you can be punished,” Mr. Panha said.

“When observers find something wrong in the procedures, they explain or ask the polling officer to correct it, but now you cannot because they may consider it an offense.”

“Overall, I think this law is worse,” Mr. Panha said. “Too much affects the freedom of the contesting parties and civil society. In election, the freedom of the key players is very important but now they ban and restrict these people.

“If people have no freedom and the parties can be removed by the NEC during the election, I think there is a very high risk it will create conflict and problems,” he said.

Mr. Rainsy, the opposition leader, declined to comment on Mr. Panha’s concerns Sunday and said only that he should raise concerns at this morning’s consultation.

“I won’t make any comments until the seminar tomorrow. He can express his opinion and representatives of my party can answer him,” he said. “I will tell Kuoy Bunroeun to leave time for questions. There will be real debate.”

Mr. Rainsy said it was possible that the parties could amend the election law if issues are raised.

“It depends on the nature of the complaint. If there is any serious grounds to revise any articles or revise, we are prepared to do it but I cannot preempt what kind of questions will be asked or the seriousness of the concerns,” he said.

CPP spokesman Sok Ey San defended the content of the new election law, but said this morning’s consultation would be a legitimate chance for NGO leaders to provide input, even if only given two days to review the draft.

“The working groups only finished the draft the day before yesterday—how could it have been given to them?” Mr. Ey San said, adding that a boycott of NGO leaders would not concern him. “They can attend or not. It’s up to them.”

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