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Cambodian Lawmakers Approve Election Committee

FILE - Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, shown delivering a speech in Phnom Penh in January, has urged the country's new National Election Committee to be independent, saying that it does "not need to come back and seek guidance from the parties anymore."

Putting the final stamp of approval on a process that took months of negotiation, the Cambodian National Assembly has approved the new structure and membership of the National Election Committee, the body that will oversee voter registration and elections.

The new NEC, approved by 113 of 118 lawmakers Thursday, is composed of nine members — four selected by the ruling party, four by opposition parties and one agreed upon by both.

The former NEC was widely criticized for bias toward the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, and its reformation was a key demand of the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party in talks that ended a protracted political deadlock following 2013 elections.

After the vote, Prime Minister Hun Sen said all members of the NEC must resign from the political parties and the parliament before starting their new positions. He also called for the new body to be independent.

“All political parties rely on this new NEC," he said. "Therefore, I hope that you all will not need to come back and seek guidance from the parties anymore. You do not need to ask us about your work.”

That message was echoed by opposition leader Sam Rainsy: “You must not allow any political groups, factions and party to threaten, instruct, convince with any kind of promise to you. You should use your conscience and make a decision according to your conscience.”

The new president of the NEC will be Sik Bunhok, a CPP lawmaker. The vice president will be Kouy Bunroeun, a lawmaker for the Rescue Party.

The neutral member of the committee will be Hang Puthea, head of the election monitoring group Nicfec. He was nominated following a surprise decision to decline the position by prominent human rights activist Pung Chhiv Kek, who said it would be impossible for the NEC to retain its mandated neutrality, even under the new structure.

The approval followed a day of final negotiations between the two sides.

Those negotiations were overshadowed by the detention of Rescue Party Vice President Kem Sokha, who was questioned for seven hours by Phnom Penh Municipal Court prosecutors as the talks went on. He was released at the end of the day, following questioning that, according to his lawyer, was random and “all over the place.”

The new NEC members will be sworn in Saturday, and the new body will begin operating on Monday.

This report was produced in collaboration with the VOA Khmer service.