Cambodia’s ruling and opposition parties announced Monday that they have completed a draft law on electoral reform, but officials say they remain at odds on how to establish a secretariat to manage the country’s national election body.
Ben Chhin, who leads a working group for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP), said that a draft law to revamp the National Election Committee (NEC) had been finalized, but that they cannot come to an agreement with the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) on the formation of a secretariat for the NEC.
“We cannot decide on the process of [appointing] the NEC secretariat,” he told reporters in the capital Phnom Penh.
“We’ll submit our recommendations to the party leaders before deciding how to proceed.”
The NEC is supported by a general secretariat, which oversees the work of five departments: operations, administration, finance, training and public information, and legal services.
Ben Chhin said Monday that the CPP wants the secretariat to be selected by a government sub-decree, while the CNRP wants candidates to be approved by a majority of NEC members.
He did not provide details on what reforms had been agreed to under the draft law finalized Monday.
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), told RFA’s Khmer Service that the secretariat must maintain its independence from the government as it will be directly involved in the country’s electoral process.
“The secretariat must be under the oversight of the NEC—if a sub-decree can manage the secretariat, it means that the government will control it,” he said.
“The NEC is a constitutional council and should be independent. It must be managed by the NEC.”
Koul Panha said that candidates for the secretariat should also be free from any political affiliation.
Monday’s announcement follows a joint statement issued last week by Hun Sen and CNRP President Sam Rainsy which said their two parties had agreed to completely settle any remaining differences on changes to the country’s electoral system.
Electoral reforms were a key part of a July 22 deal that saw elected opposition lawmakers return to parliament following a 10-month boycott protesting last year’s election results, but negotiations between the two sides had stalled in recent months.
In a statement, the party leaders said a draft law on the NEC and an amendment to the existing election law would be passed by the end of February 2015, when the current NEC is expected to be disbanded.
As part of the agreement, the CNRP was granted a television station license and Sam Rainsy was made parliament minority leader—a position formally “equal” to Hun Sen’s—while the CNRP agreed to a CPP demand that no members of the new NEC could hold more than one citizenship, the statement said.
Under the July deal, the new NEC will consist of nine members—four from each party and one neutral member to serve as tiebreaker.
Both parties had selected Pung Chhiv Kek, the head of the Cambodian rights group Licadho, to be the neutral member, but last week’s agreement appears to have barred her from the position as she holds Cambodian, Canadian and French citizenship.
Last week’s statement caused some supporters of the CNRP to question whether the party leadership had given up too much ground to the ruling party.
On Monday, Sam Rainsy published an open letter saying that the CNRP’s negotiations with the CPP were “not intended to serve the interests of any political party or any individual” and had been undertaken to “lay the foundation for Cambodia’s democratic future.”
The CNRP leader said that he was satisfied a number of the party’s demands had been met “in principle,” including the formation of a new and more independent electoral commission and the right to operate radio and television stations nationally to ensure that the public can make “free and informed choices.”
Sam Rainsy said the opposition had won recognition by the government and ruling party as an institution “with guaranteed rights and privileges” and welcomed his new role as “minority leader” of parliament to act as Hun Sen’s “dialogue partner … on issues of national interest.”
“What the CNRP has obtained represents significant strides towards democracy for a country which has only recently emerged from a long period of authoritarianism when a communist-born ruling party only strived to eliminate any form of opposition through most repressive means including violence,” he said.
CNRP public relations director and lawmaker Mu Sochua also appeared to address criticisms against the party in an email to supporters Monday, saying that the “CNRP made no ‘major concessions’ on election reforms as reported by the media,” according to a report by the Phnom Penh Post.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.