The National Election Committee, criticized during February’s commune elections for political bias, is supposed to be a neutral organization charged with fairly implementing the election law.
Is there anyone in Cambodia neutral enough to lead it?
Prime Minister Hun Sen, leader of the victorious CPP, said last year that such people are “hard to find” in modern Cambodian society.
Leaders of Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party seemingly agree with Hun Sen’s statement. But they say there are ways to make the organization more fair.
Chea Vannath, director of the Center for Social Development, rejects Hun Sen’s contention. She said there are many Cambodians who are capable of doing a professional job on the NEC—the problem is that they don’t get appointed.
“We can find some people with neutrality and job experience to do better work in the NEC. We have a lot of them, but we never give them opportunity to do their work,” she said.
Time is running out. If Hun Sen sets the date for the next national elections for May or June 2003—as he said he would last December—political parties have only a few months to attempt to reorganize the NEC before work must begin on the next election.
Elections law states that the Ministry of Interior must send lawmakers its plan to reorganize the NEC 11 months before Election Day. Parliament then has two months to approve the plan.
Funcinpec lawmaker Keo Remy thinks the new NEC should include members from the three parties that serve in Parliament, and that each party should be equally represented in order to counter each other’s biases.
“Of course, members of political parties always try to [benefit] their parties. But when we have equal numbers of members at the decision-making level, then nobody can dominate each other. So they must find a middle way to get together and walk on. That is the neutrality we want,” he said.
Sam Rainsy Party Senator Ou Bun Long said his party wants the NEC to reduce the number of commissioners from nine to five: one member from each party in parliament, plus two others chosen from among Cambodian intellectuals who would serve as the chairman and deputy chairman.
He said the appointment of current NEC chairman Chheng Phon was unsuccessful because it was made by the government with no input from minority political parties.
“We suffered bad experiences from the previous selection; it was not good,” he said. “Even people as originally good as Chheng Phon and Kassie Neou” ended up performing poorly, according to Ou Bun Long..
He suggested each party submit a list of five well-known persons they find acceptable. Lao Mong Hay, Chea Vannath and Thun Saray would be good candidates, he said.
Keo Remy agrees that many neutral Cambodians are capable of serving on the NEC, but said he does not believe they can gain the necessary approval from the ruling CPP party.
According to the law, an NEC commissioner must be approved by the Ministry of Interior, the prime minister and the National Assembly. “I fear that on the way [someone] will prevent neutral people from being approved,” he said.
Current NEC member Prum Nhean Vichet said he welcomed any shake-up of his organization, including a possible reduction in staff and commissioners, but denied the organization is biased toward the CPP.
“We have given up our political affiliation to work at the NEC and we are working neutrally. But some people still don’t understand us,” he said.
NEC member Uong Kheng agreed that a reduction in size is a good idea. He said he saw signs of bias in his tenure.
Prince Norodom Ranariddh, president of the National Assembly and Funcinpec, has called for the “immediate” restructuring of the NEC, which he says is biased and overstaffed.
Complaint resolution procedures are particularly unfair, the prince said. When voters or candidates had a problem with commune election officials, they were forced to appeal to provincial or national election officials—who appointed the original personnel involved in the problem.
The prince suggested a separate body should be responsible for resolving disputes.
Ou Bun Long supported that idea, saying the dispute resolution body should be made up of “three to five” members approved by all parties.
Lao Mong Hay, former executive director of the Khmer Institute for Democracy, said the government should start early to ensure the 2003 electoral process goes smoothly.
He suggested the government draft a law, spelling out its commitment to fair elections, the length of the campaign and rules governing access to broadcast media.
He said national TV and radio could air a 10-minute discussion once a month before the election period even begins.
“We have to let people know what each party in parliament plans to do for the people,” Lao Mong Hay said. “This would be a contribution to democracy, to guarantee equal media treatment.”
He said a national moratorium on donations by politicians to voters should take effect three months before the election. Any further necessary donations could be made by the Cambodian Red Cross, he said.
He also suggested King Norodom Sihanouk set up a caretaker government for that three-month period, creating a “neutral atmosphere” for the election. He said Bangladesh uses this procedure.
Lao Mong Hay praised the government for replacing incumbent commune chiefs with acting chiefs in the weeks before February’s commune elections. He called for similar substitutes to be appointed for national leaders, including Prime Minister Hun Sen, in 2003.