Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen on Wednesday threatened to overturn reforms to the country’s National Election Committee (NEC) if the opposition refuses to accept his nomination of the head of a local election watchdog as a ninth, “neutral” member to the electoral body, based on health concerns.
Hun Sen said that if the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) does not accept Hang Puthea, director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC), as the ninth member to the NEC, the current body will remain the same.
“If we don’t reach an agreement, we will keep Im Suosdey as the NEC president,” he said, speaking at an inauguration ceremony for a Chinese-funded bridge in Stung Treng province.
“If the new NEC is not established, the old one must continue.”
Hun Sen said CNRP President Sam Rainsy had expressed reservations about the selection of Hang Puthea because the NGO leader suffers from diabetes.
But while some 50 candidates have applied for the position, the prime minister said his ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) would not back down from its selection of Hang Puthea to head the NEC, whose other eight positions are split equally between the CPP and the CNRP.
He urged the CNRP to “refrain from lofty demands,” noting that the opposition controls fewer seats than the CPP in the country’s National Assembly, or parliament.
In a letter addressed to Sam Rainsy, and released by the CPP to the public on Tuesday, Hun Sen confirmed that the two political adversaries had agreed two days earlier to select Hang Puthea, though no CNRP statement was immediately available at the time.
Sam Rainsy could not be reached for comment Wednesday, but CNRP spokesman Nhem Panharith told RFA’s Khmer Service that the opposition had not made a decision on who to nominate since Pung Chhiv Kek, founder of local rights group Licadho, announced she would not accept the position a day earlier.
“Up until today, the party’s leaders have not made any decision on a candidate yet,” he said, adding that any nominee “must be approved by the two parties that control the seats of parliament.”
Nhem Panharith acknowledged that Sam Rainsy had reservations about Hang Puthea’s health, but only with regard to the continuity of the new NEC.
“When Sam Rainsy raised concerns about Hang Puthea’s health, it was not meant to insult him,” he said.
The CPP’s public release of Hun Sen’s letter to Sam Rainsy followed an announcement Tuesday by Pung Chhiv Kek that she would not serve as the NEC’s ninth member, citing concerns that the new body would lack independence of government control, and calling the job “impossible.”
Pung Chhiv Kek had been offered the post shortly after a deal in July 2014 which saw opposition lawmakers return to the National Assembly following a 10-month boycott protesting a disputed national election the year before.
The CPP was declared victorious in the 2013 election, sparking widespread protests and allegations of government control of the NEC, which oversees polls in the country.
On March 19, 2015, Cambodia’s parliament unanimously approved a proposed law establishing a new NEC with nine members—four each from the CPP and the CNRP, together with a neutral ninth member to serve as tiebreaker.
Future Forum President Ou Virak told RFA he believes that the revamped NEC will function better than the existing body, regardless of who is selected as the ninth member, adding that the CPP stands to benefit if no deal is reached on a nominee.
“We have observed that, right now, the CPP has more leverage than the CNRP, because if there is no solution, the NEC must continue as it exists now,” he said.
“I don’t think the CNRP has any other choice than to accept Hang Puthea.”
Speaking to RFA on Tuesday, Hang Puthea said that he had applied for the position on Monday after learning that Pung Chhiv Kek would decline the post.
“If I have the opportunity to serve as the ninth NEC member, I will contribute to a better election process in Cambodia,” he said.
Nominations for the other eight positions on the NEC were opened last week, and officials from both parties have said they hope to establish the body before Khmer New Year, which begins on April 14.
A second law approved last week also amends Cambodia’s current election law. However, it contains provisions stipulating that local and international nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operating in Cambodia must remain neutral in elections and forbids them from participating in political campaigns, prompting complaints from rights groups and NGOs.
Hun Sen on Wednesday lashed out at NGOs critical of the new election law and the NEC.
“Some NGOs and foreigners who like to interfere with the government’s affairs attacked us, saying the new law is worse than the existing law,” he said.
“If it is worse than the previous law, should we go back to using the old law?”
Hun Sen said that the government wouldn’t backtrack just to honor the NGOs’ recommendations and urged the groups to be mindful of their boundaries.
“Please understand your roles—I would like to announce that the NGO law will be adopted very soon and I won’t let you run wild.”
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.