Op-Ed: The Phnom Penh Post
The ruling party wants “biased” election watchdogs to be on a tight leash by the next election and wants the opposition to agree to it, senior Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker Cheam Yeap said yesterday ahead of the third meeting of a bipartisan election reform committee this morning.
Despite mudslinging between the ruling and opposition parties last week that at one point saw Cambodia National Rescue Party leader Sam Rainsy pledge to walk away from talks and hold more demonstrations, the CPP has agreed to discuss the opposition’s key demand of National Election Committee reform, Yeap said.
But in return, the ruling party wants election-monitoring NGOs, whose documenting of poll irregularities bolstered the opposition’s rejection of the July election, to come under increased scrutiny via a long-gestating law on NGOs and associations.
On Friday, Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin, head of the CPP’s negotiating team, replied to a letter from his opposition counterpart, Son Chhay, agreeing that the “reform of electoral institutions” could be added to the election reform framework the committee is tasked with preparing.
He added, however, that the “neutrality and honesty of civil society groups [working on] election” would also have to be on the table.
The CPP had already raised the issue during last week’s meet, but it was dismissed by the CNRP’s Chhay as “ridiculous”.
Yesterday, Yeap confirmed that his party wanted the NGO law to specifically target the neutrality of election watchdogs.
“I would like to inform [the public] that a number of civil society groups were involved in election observation. They alleged that irregularities occurred and protested that we had robbed the ballots. Therefore, we want to create a law that ensures their neutrality,” he stated.
“I won’t name them, but some civil society groups have taken sides and become a tool of the opposition party or even played a more active role against the ruling party than the opposition [does].”
Earlier this month, a senior Interior Ministry official told the Post that civil society groups would no longer be consulted on the NGO law.
In January, the Council of Ministers’ Press and Quick Reaction Unit released a booklet addressing findings made by the Electoral Reform Alliance, an umbrella group of election watchdogs, in a post-election report.
“It is clear that the authors of the Joint-Report are talented experts having knowledge concerning elections and experience in tricky writing to mislead readers concerning the electoral process,” it said, adding that, conspicuously, the report was released at the same time the CNRP decided to hold daily demonstrations.
“It was produced to discredit the 2013 electoral process by manipulations and fabrications, aiming to bring its readers to view the electoral system in Cambodia as not fair … misleading the public into believing that this is the reason behind the CNRP’s loss.”
Preap Kol, executive director at Transparency International Cambodia (TIC), a key contributor to the ERA report, said yesterday that he was “surprised that the CPP considers [this issue] equally important as the reform of the [NEC]”.
While NGOs like TIC are bound by principles of transparency and integrity that guarantee their financial funding, he said that a “small number of NGOs might have a political agenda”.
But Kol added that the government’s focus on the NGO law at this time implied a clear agenda on its part “to suppress civil society organisations”.
Hang Puthea, executive director of election monitoring group NICFEC, also a contributing member to the ERA, said that he welcomed an NGO law that would crack down on errant organisations, because he was confident that the ERA groups were all impartial.
Meanwhile, the CNRP’s Chhay said he hoped that the CPP would stop “playing around” in today’s discussions by outlining all the issues they want to reform, even if that includes the “irrelevant” NGO law, so the committee can push forward.
“I want them to put it all on the table.… We aren’t going to waste our time arguing with them what issues are for discussion or not.… Put everything and take all those issues to debate at a workshop,” he said.
He added, however, that any public consultation would dismiss NGO impartiality as a non-issue.
“The CPP have a kind of a problem regarding any organisations who dare to find the facts about the wrongdoing of this government. To report on this is [to be] considered as the enemy.”