The director of Cambodia’s election reform movement asked the U.S. government on Wednesday to make any financial aid to the country conditional on the implementation of planned electoral reforms.
The request by Koul Panha, director of the Committee on Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel) came after a meeting with officials of the U.S. State Department and United States Agency for International Development (USAID) in Washington, where he observed the American midterm elections this week.
“We have encouraged the U.S. State Department and USAID to pay close attention to the electoral reforms so that they should set conditions for [them] in exchange for aid to the Cambodia government,” he told RFA’s Khmer Service.
“If the U.S. [agencies] wants to help Cambodia, they must set conditions that the government must conduct electoral reforms. Electoral reforms must comply with international standards to make sure that there is a free and fair election.”
Overhauling the NEC
Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) are overhauling the National Election Committee (NEC), which oversees the country’s elections, as part of an agreement reached in July to end a political standoff.
The government-appointed NEC had declared the CPP the victor in disputed elections a year earlier, despite widespread allegations of fraud, prompting the CNRP to boycott the National Assembly, or parliament.
Under the agreement, the new body will consist of nine members—four from each party and one neutral member to serve as tiebreaker—and the two parties are preparing a joint proposal for parliament to endorse.
“There are possibilities that Cambodia will conduct electoral reform if the international community pays close attention,” Koul Panha said.
Chheang Von, a CNRP lawmaker, said the U.S. should not take what Koul Panha says seriously.
“I am saddened by what he told the U.S. State Department because the two parties are [still] talking and finalizing their discussions [on election reforms],” he said. “We will finish by early next year.”
Koul Panha has called for the appointment of NEC members to be open to the public rather than confined to those from the two parties.
He also has said the draft law on election reform is still sketchy because of a lack of agreement on how candidates for key positions within the NEC would be elected.
Furthermore, he has criticized the two parties for failing to decide on the body’s budget as well as their working groups for getting bogged down in issues that have slowed the process, such as the question of whether Cambodians with dual citizenship can hold NEC positions.
“We must push and put pressure on the government and the opposition party to work in order to conduct electoral reforms,” he said. ‘The process must also be open and transparent.”
So far, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s CPP and the CNRP, led by opposition leader Sam Rainsy, have completed 90 percent of a draft law to reform the country’s electoral body.
Yet, Koul Panha expressed concern about the willingness of the parties to complete the process.
“There have been many empty promises so far,” he said.
Don’t blame us
Eng Chhay Eang, a CNRP lawmaker and member of the working group that is drafting the law on the new NEC, said he supports Comfrel’s recommendation to continue pressing for reform, but noted that his party should not be blamed for any delays in the process.
“We are working to establish a good NEC, but there are some points that we can’t agree upon [with the CNRP],” he said.
The group of lawmakers working on the reforms is trying to complete the draft law by Nov. 10, he said.
“We want Cambodia to be a completely democratic country, but in order for this to happen, there must be free and fair elections and a complete reform of the NEC,” he said.
Reported by Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.