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As Election Reform Continues, Varied Interest Among Citizens

Residents of Phnom Penh take their morning exercise at a longing the Tonle Sap river bank in front of Royal Palace, file photo.
Residents of Phnom Penh take their morning exercise at a longing the Tonle Sap river bank in front of Royal Palace, file photo.

As the ruling party and opposition move closer to a deal on election reform, many everyday Cambodians say they are unsure what the new policies will bring.

Negotiations between the Cambodian People’s Party and the Cambodia National Rescue Party have gone on since July 2014. Many residents in Phnom Penh interviewed in Phnom Penh on Tuesday said they were not sure what was happening with the reform.

“It’s good for the country but I’m not paying much attention to it because I am very busy with my business,” Uch Reaksmey, a 36-year-old jewelry vendor and money exchanger at Beoung Keng Kang market, said.

The two parties held a public consultation on two draft reform laws on Monday. The reforms would add two seats to the National Assembly, for a total 125, reduce the campaign period to 21 days and prohibit outside groups, like election NGOs, from “biased” political activities—a proposal that has met much criticism for limiting free speech. The draft law on elections also prohibits parties from boycotting the Assembly, lest they lose their seats.

But as much as the election reform has consumed the two parties, as well as democracy and rights groups, for everyday Cambodians, there are other things to worry about.

Suon Sovathana, a 23-year-old senior at Pannasastra University, said he mostly focuses on his studies—though he did say the reforms were probably a positive step, especially if they prevent political stand-offs.

Kong Choeun, a 33 year-old tuk-tuk driver in Phnom Penh, said he thinks the new laws will benefit the ruling CPP, while prohibiting civil society from taking part. “They’ve created a new law to keep civil society from advocating for political rights in Cambodia,” he said.

The UN’s special rights envoy to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, issued his own set of concerns this week, as democracy and rights groups complain their concerns with the reforms have gone unheeded.

“It is regrettable that the draft law was shared only on the eve of [Monday’s] consultation, precluding the possibility for civil society and other interested actors from examining it in depth and contributing meaningfully to the consultation,” Subedi wrote in a statement, adding that the two parties should give more time for consultation on the draft law.

CPP spokesman Chhim Phal Virun rejected the concerns of the NGOs and Subedi.

“The proposals from the outsiders equal zero,” he told VOA Khmer. “Not only Surya Subedi, but even the US president does not have any right to order Cambodia to establish a law based on anything but our will.”

The two draft laws are expected to reach the National Assembly’s standing committee for discussion on Thursday.