The National Assembly yesterday unanimously approved two former judges for seats on the country’s top election body ahead of national elections next year despite a boycott by opposition lawmakers.
The 29 lawmakers of the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) and Human Rights Party (HRP) refused to participate in the vote to protest the National Election Committee’s (NEC) perceived bias toward the ruling CPP, and the complete lack of transparency in the selection of new members.
Despite the boycott, the two NEC candidates, Sin Dim and Sor Sophary, sailed through the vote, which went without debate and with all 87 lawmakers present voting in approval.
They replace Klok Buddhi—a former Funcinpec lawmaker and Cabinet director at the Interior Ministry—and Koy Veth—a former deputy director at the Ministry of Education.
Ahead of the vote, Interior Minister Sar Kheng, whose ministry selected the two candidates behind a shroud of secrecy, said the reconstituted NEC would help solidify the country’s democratic credentials.
“Reforming the NEC now is reforming democracy in Cambodia,” Mr. Kheng said.
Afterward, long-serving NEC Chair Im Suosdey, who retained his post along with Vice Chair Sin Chum Bo and the committee’s five other members, thanked the assembly for its approval.
Mr. Suosdey, who has long had links to the ruling CPP, rejected claims of bias at the NEC.
“These claims are not new,” he told reporters outside the chamber. “What we have done so far respects the rule of law.”
Mr. Suosdey said he had no idea how Mr. Dim and Mr. Sophary—a former Supreme Court judge and the Phnom Penh Municipal Court president, respectively—were selected by the Interior Ministry.
Interior Ministry officials have declined to comment on the selection process.
The National Assembly election law gives the Interior Ministry the job of selecting candidates for the NEC from among experienced “dignitaries,” but spells out no other rules.
The opposition has long pointed to the past CPP affiliations of most NEC members as evidence of its bias toward the ruling party. For several weeks leading up yesterday’s vote, the government has repeatedly rejected its request to form a multi-party committee to select new NEC members.
Having boycotted yesterday’s vote, SRP lawmaker Yim Sovann said the opposition rejected the new NEC’s legitimacy and still wanted the government to form an inclusive selection committee.
“We do not recognize the composition of the NEC this morning. We still demand national unity in nominating the list,” he said.
Though the boycott failed to stop the vote, Mr. Sovann said the opposition hoped to draw attention to their complaints.
“The people who lead the NEC are the same, so we will encounter the same problems, the unfree and unfair elections like we had before,” he said.
Next year’s national elections are scheduled for July, and voter registration ends today.
Laura Thornton, country director for the U.S.-based National Democratic Institute, said it was ironic that the Assembly vote came just weeks after the NEC reached out to international donors to help fund next year’s election with the promise of a free and fair process.
“Then you had a selection process [for the NEC] that’s the complete opposite of that, [and] which completely lacks any transparency,” she said.
Ms. Thornton said that she and her staff had used all their effort to find out how the Interior Ministry made its selections, and after yesterday’s vote there were still no details on the ex-judges’ backgrounds.
She said the focus should not necessarily be on finding independent NEC candidates, adding that in the U.S., the election body is split evenly between members clearly aligned to one of the two main parties.
What Cambodia needed, she said, was a selection process that was simply competitive, open to a broad cross-section of society and transparent.
“Right or wrong, there are people in this country who believe the election process is unfair,” she said.