Heated debate broke out between political party leaders and National Election Committee officials Thursday as they hammered out a format for roundtable discussions to be televised during the electoral campaign.
But given the structure for discussions chosen by the NEC, such displays of polemics will never get the television audiences they deserve, say election watchdogs groups.
Despite a proposal from the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections—Coffel—and the Committee for Free and Fair Elections— Comfrel—for face-to-face debate between opposing candidates, the NEC has opted for a system where party leaders answer random questions without engaging in any direct debate.
“These are interviews, not debates,” said Comfrel representative Koul Panha. “I think they are afraid of violence during the discussions.”
Coffel member Lao Mong Hay added that open debate might be an uncomfortable experience for those in power. “Maybe they are afraid of giving exposure to eloquent politicians,” he said. “Maybe they are afraid things might get out of control.”
Party leaders complained bitterly that the plan gave the NEC control over what message the party gave out.
The NEC’s plan is for five party representatives to appear on each program and randomly select a question from those prepared by the NEC. Each party would have five minutes to answer their question, with no chances for direct debate between the parties.
Son Sann Party Secretary-General Kem Sokha told the meeting he thought the discussions should be open to journalists, who could question leaders much as they would do in the US or France.
NEC media spokesman Prum Nhean Vicheth defended the method as the only way to ensure equal time to all parties.
The NEC did, however, agree to cut the number of questions from 40 to 15 before filming discussions on Sunday. The finished programs will be aired over 15 days during the official election campaign, from June 26 to July 24.
(Additional reporting by Kay Johnson and Catherine Philp)