Leaders from Cambodia’s opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) agreed on Thursday to nominate the head of a local election watchdog agency to fill the ninth politically “neutral” member slot on the committee that oversees the country’s polls.
Hang Puthea, director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC), was named by Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the CNRP as their selection for the position after Pung Chhiv Kek, founder of local rights group Licadho, refused the job earlier this week, citing concerns about government influence on the body.
Nhem Punharith, CNRP spokesman, said his party agreed to accept Hang Puthea as the ninth member of the National Election Committee (NEC) because of his experience with elections in Cambodia.
The NEC’s other eight positions are split equally between the CPP and the CNRP. The ninth member will hold the tie-breaking vote.
“The first important point is that we wanted to have a civil society leader who has experience with elections—that was one of the CNRP’s principal demands,” he said.
“Our second concern was related to his [political] stance, ensuring that he performs his job with impartiality and is active in the election process in Cambodia.”
But Nhem Punharith said he did not know whether CNRP president Sam Rainsy had signed off on a letter sent by Hun Sen, which the CPP released to the public on Tuesday, urging him to include Hang Puthea as a candidate.
Fifty candidates have applied for the position, but only the names of four who were shortlisted were submitted to the National Assembly, or parliament, he said.
CPP spokesperson Chhim Phalvorun said that the person who fills the ninth slot in the NEC would not chair the committee, and that the CCP and CNRP already agreed on a 4-4-1 member formula that would give the NEC chairman post to one party and the vice chairman post to the another.
“We will not give the ninth member of the NEC the chairman post because he will not have the status of representing the people that can make him a chairperson,” Chhim Phalvorun said. “But this does not mean we do not value him. We value him as being the person who makes decisions based on the absolute majority voice.”
“And the main job of the NEC is to implement [decisions] both at the grassroots and national levels in accordance with the law governing the organization and the implementation of the NEC and the law on parliamentary elections,” he said.
The CPP and CNRP have agreed on who will hold the NEC general secretary and deputy secretary positions, Chhim Phalvorun said.
But he said he could not disclose who would be appointed chairman and vice chairman of the NEC out of respect for each party’s rights, pending the official vote for the new electoral body.
The two parties anticipate establishing the new NEC before the Cambodian New Year in mid-April.
Risk of remaining the same
Hun Sen on Wednesday had threatened to overturn reforms to the NEC if the CNRP refused to accept Hang Puthea’s nomination as the “neutral” member to the electoral body, based on health concerns.
If the CNRP did not accept Hang Puthea, he said, the current body would remain the same.
Under the new NEC law, the existing body would continue functioning in the event that disagreement over members prevented a new one from being formed.
Hun Sen said Sam Rainsy had requested that other candidates be considered hours after the prime minister had embraced Hang Puthea as a candidate for the position, according to a report in The Phnom Penh Post.
Sam Rainsy also reasoned that Hang Puthea would have to travel to Vietnam to get medical treatment for his diabetes, the report said.
Hang Puthea told RFA Tuesday that he would accept the nomination if selected.
The new NEC replaces an old body of the same name which was set up in 1998 and has been accused of facilitating election fraud in favor of the CPP.
Both parties agreed to reform the body as part of a political deal last July that ended the CNRP’s 10-month boycott of parliament following disputed elections in July 2013 which kept the CPP in power amid allegations of government control of the NEC.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Yanny Hin. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.