Reform of the National Election Committee – an issue which last week threatened to derail talks between the ruling party and opposition – has been agreed to as an election reform priority, officials said after the third meeting of a bipartisan committee yesterday.
The committee, which first met on March 3, also released a framework of 14 areas of election reform. Further details will be hammered out in another meeting next Monday, before the framework is taken to a yet-to-be-scheduled national workshop for consultation, party representatives said.
The neutrality of armed forces and civil servants – fingered as a major issue by rights groups during campaigning for last July’s election – features on the list of proposed reform areas.
Earlier this year, Defence Minister Tea Banh accused the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party of “inciting chaos in society” during street protests and called on the armed forces to defend the government.
Other points on the list include parties’ access to media, the direct election of village chiefs, an election dispute resolution mechanism, rules on election propaganda and, despite being lampooned as “ridiculous” by the opposition, the neutrality of election watchdogs.
Significant reforms agreed to in previous meetings, such as overhauling the voter list and the creating a law on political party finance, are also on the agenda.
No specific details of how reforms would be implemented have been released, but the CNRP has said it wants an independent, constitutionally recognised election body to replace the current NEC, and for members of the committee to require approval by two-thirds of parliament.
Son Chhay, head of the CNRP delegation to the committee, called the agreement a “first step” to real reform.
“The aim of the [CNRP] is to see real reform. [We] want [to address] the necessary points and the priority point of [NEC reform] that we have proposed,” he said.
“Electoral institutions are the basis of the biggest election problems, and we worry our citizens could lose faith in elections [because of this]. This is a necessary topic that must be immediately solved.”
Chhay, the CNRP’s whip, added that his party would only end its boycott of the National Assembly if an early election is scheduled. The CNRP has frequently stated that the currently discussed reforms are being prepared now to ensure that any upcoming election will be free and fair.
Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin, head of the CPP delegation to the committee, confirmed that the parties will take the 14 points to a national workshop involving civil society groups, but said that further details still need to be discussed next Monday.
“[We] would like to affirm that the framework of election reform is the package of problems that we have studied, resulting in 14 [reform areas],” he said.
The CPP has made it clear that it sees an NGO law that would ensure the neutrality of election watchdogs as a priority area. But Chhin yesterday emphasised that “all points are important”.
“And don’t think that the [CPP] did not raise the topic of election institution reform. [We wanted] to discuss this, too, but as to what level of reform will occur, we do not know yet.”
Last week, senior CPP figures said that any reform of the NEC would be off the table, leading the CNRP to threaten to walk away from talks.
Though the ruling party appears to have softened that position, Chhin said yesterday that his party still views an early election as “impossible” due to the constitutionally mandated five-year term of the National Assembly.
Koul Panha and Hang Puthea, respectively the heads of election watchdogs Comfrel and NICFEC, said yesterday that the election reform process was moving too slowly.
“We would like to welcome [that the parties] are sitting to talk, but we have seen that the negotiation is proceeding slowly. The points that were agreed [after the first meeting] have still not been discussed in detail,” Panha said.
But the CNRP’s Chhay blamed the CPP for the slow progress of talks, which have seen one meeting a week since March 3.
“They said they are too old and they can’t stay beyond 12pm. They [say they] are hungry,” he said.
“We give them another chance. [But] if they are going to try and [delay] proceeding straight to the workshop and allow the experts to provide recommendations [at next Monday’s meeting], I think it’s about time to stop fooling around with them.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KEVIN PONNIAH