When the ruling CPP and opposition CNRP sat down Monday for a third round of electoral reform talks, the ruling party took a surprising new direction in its policy priorities.
Rather than bring up voter lists, electoral bodies or access to the media, the CPP delegation wanted to talk about the political neutrality of civil society groups—particularly those who report on the country’s democratic process.
The CPP proposed a law to ensure the neutrality of civil society organizations and a review of independent election monitors working in Cambodia. Many had released reports highly critical of July’s national election.
“It is very serious when the civil society groups are not neutral, because it creates a very bad impact on the public and elections,” said CPP lawmaker Sik Bunhok.
“We are not targeting on any particular NGOs and civil society organizations, but we want to see them all respect the law and be responsible for doing anything wrong,” he said.
“Thus, we need to write in the law a requirement that any civil society groups must be responsible before the law if their claims… cause problems with the election,” Mr. Bunhok added.
A group of 12 civil society groups, calling themselves the Electoral Reform Alliance, released in December the Joint-Report on the Conduct of the 2013 Cambodian Elections, the most comprehensive analysis thus far of the July’s fiercely disputed national election.
The report, using information gathered by six election monitoring groups, showed that widespread election irregularities— including flawed voter lists and extensive distribution of temporary identity cards—ultimately favored the CPP, which officially won the election with 68 out of 123 National Assembly seats.
The CNRP has boycotted parliament since it was convened in September, demanding that the CPP either agree to an investigation into the election or hold a new election before 2018.
As the CPP fought off claims from the opposition that its government is illegitimate due to the flawed elections, the ERA report—and its authors—have been placed at the center of Cambodia’s ongoing political quarrel.
In a 60-page response to the ERA report in January, the Council of Ministers proclaimed that the civil society groups behind it, which include many of the country’s most prominent election and human rights NGOs, were collaborating with the CNRP.
“The Joint-Report which was compiled based on the research by various so-called ‘independent organizations,’ whose agents are also called ‘independent,’ does not reflect the adherence to those principles and neither do the current activities of these NGOs in Cambodia,” the Council of Ministers response said.
The response went on to say that the post-election efforts by the CNRP to undermine the credibility of July’s election “were planned and designed in close cooperation with a number of non-governmental organizations allied with the CNRP, which have received technical, financial and political support from abroad.”
Although the newly formed CPP government has promised deep reforms, it has continued to confuse criticism with political opposition, said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, a contributor to the ERA report.
“[The CPP] doesn’t want any report regarding election irregularities,” Mr Panha said. “They want to see a legitimate [election] outcome. They want to say ‘Everything is perfect. The election is free and fair and everything is fine.’”
“But there have been complaints from the public, so they should deal with that,” he continued. “They should recognize the problem and then move forward, otherwise how can they reform?”
Chea Vannath, a political analyst and former president of the Center for Social Development, said that the tension between the ruling party and civil society groups is a function of the CPP’s refusal to embrace democratic principles enshrined in the Constitution.
“Neutrality [among civil society groups] is to say what you are supposed to say based on democracy, good governance, transparency and accountability, not because of political bias,” she said.
“From the ruling party’s point of view…all that is considered biased,” she added.
Thun Saray, president of local rights group Adhoc, said that, in the absence of independent electoral institutions within the government, the role of civil society groups as a check on the ruling party’s power was critical.
“Civil society has to be neutral and independent from both parties, but when we see the elephant try to step on the mouse we cannot keep silent,” Mr. Saray said.
“We have to speak when we see injustice or unfairness,” he added. “If we keep silent we are not neutral anymore, we are on the side of the elephant.”