Cambodia’s Ruling, Opposition Parties at Odds Over Electoral Body Reform

cambodia-binh-chhin-march-2014.jpg Binh Chhin (L) speaks to reporters in response to Son Chhay (R) in Phnom Penh, March, 10, 2014.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) on Monday rejected an opposition proposal to revamp the country’s electoral body as they met for a third round of talks aimed at breaking a seven-month political deadlock following disputed polls.

Opposition leader Sam Rainsy’s Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) said in a statement that the CPP was unwilling to accept its demand for a rapid restructure of the government-appointed National Election Commission (NEC), which oversees the country’s polls and which critics have said lacks independence.

At the end of the talks, the two parties failed to emerge with a joint statement as they did in their previous two meetings aimed at breaking a political deadlock following the July 28, 2013 elections.

“The main reason why it was impossible to issue a joint statement is because the CNRP wanted to include ‘The Reform of the NEC with regard to its composition’ as a priority issue in the subject of electoral reform,” the CNRP said, following its third round of talks in three weeks with the CPP.

The opposition party said that it had wanted the appointment of NEC members to be made by the National Assembly, the country’s parliament, and endorsed by a two-thirds majority of the 123-seat legislature but that the CPP had refused.

After the July 28 polls, which the opposition maintains were fraught with irregularities, the NEC declared the CPP the winner with 68 seats in parliament to the CNRP’s 55, but the CNRP claimed it won at least 63.

CNRP lawmakers are currently boycotting the assembly in protest of the CPP’s victory and have called for a reelection.

If the CNRP ends its boycott of parliament, it will deny the CPP of its long running two-thirds majority – even by the 55 seats the NEC says it had won.

The CNRP said it would not compromise on its proposed revamp of the NEC.

“The CPP delegates refused to include this issue in the subject of electoral reform. The CNRP is willing to continue the dialogue with the CPP, only if the latter accepts its above-mentioned requests,” the CNRP statement said.

“The CNRP believes that any electoral reform must first address the issue of the NEC because this central institution is in charge of organizing the election. Therefore, if there is no agreement on the NEC, no credible electoral reform can be conducted.”

CPP team leader Binh Chhin told reporters on Monday that the two sides had “expressed differences on technical terms,” but had “shown goodwill on working towards common goals.”

He said that the parties had “agreed in principle to a few points on electoral reforms,” though he did not elaborate.

NGO activities

Binh Chhin also said that the CPP had raised concerns about close links between nongovernmental organizations and the opposition party.

Senior CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap later told RFA’s Khmer Service that the CPP had raised the topic because “NGOs have shown ill will to the CPP.”

“Cambodia needs a law to regulate NGOs,” Cheam Yeap said.

“We want to push for an NGO law as it would allow the government and NGOs to work more easily, because so far the NGOs have only shown bias to one party [the opposition].”

A proposed law to tightly control NGOs in Cambodia was shelved two years ago following criticism from various groups within the country and foreign governments.

CNRP team leader Son Chhay responded that the opposition party was focused on conducting election reforms and would not back the CPP’s move to introduce any law to regulate NGOs.

“We have a goal to build a democratic culture here,” he said.

“We are taking ideas from the people and from NGOs before making any decision. We can’t make any law that would pressure the people and NGOs, otherwise we would be unable to resolve social issues.”

The two sides have tentatively agreed to meet again on March 17.

Monday’s meeting follows talks last week in which the two parties agreed to work together to reform an election voter registration process and review campaign financing procedures, though the CNRP said the meeting  did not signal a possible end to its boycott of parliament or its demand for fresh elections following allegations of fraud in the July polls.

The parties had agreed in September to work together on electoral reform, but talks stalled, and a February meeting had been the first between the two since then.

Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen had met earlier for the only round of top-level negotiations since the disputed election but failed to forge a political compromise.

Rallies canceled

Also on Monday, the CNRP in Takeo province cancelled two party rallies after the CPP held counter rallies that included members of the security forces in nearby locations.

CNRP Takeo provincial director Yann Vandeth told RFA that around 200 party supporters and activists abruptly canceled the rallies in two separate districts because they felt threatened by CPP members and police.

“They played loud music and surrounded our forums,” he said.

Kirivong district governor Tek Tonglim and CPP members who led the counter demonstration against the CNRP refused to comment when contacted.

The Neutral & Impartial Committee for Free & Fair Elections in Cambodia (Nicfec), an election watchdog,  claimed the CPP action was a result of a call from Hun Sen to hold counter rallies against all opposition demonstrations, which he said was inciting violence.

“This is leading people to hate one another,” Nicfec director Hang Puthea said.

“[Hun Sen] is starting a fire and we must put it out.”

In late February, Hun Sen lifted a ban on public gatherings put into place after Cambodian police fired on CNRP-backed striking garment workers a month earlier, leaving five dead in what rights groups described as the worst state violence against civilians in the country in years.

In his announcement calling off the ban, Hun Sen warned that if the opposition had the right to protest, so did supporters of his CPP—raising concerns of possible clashes between the two groups at simultaneous gatherings.

Reported by Joshua Lipes. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


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