Cambodian MPs move to shore up election oversight

PHNOM PENH - Cambodian lawmakers voted Wednesday to enshrine the independence of a key election body in the constitution, in a move to clean up polls routinely tainted by allegations of fraud.

The National Election Committee (NEC) endorsed the last polls in July 2013 which returned strongman Prime Minister Hun Sen to government and prompted months of political deadlock amid accusations of widespread ballot-rigging.

The result saw the opposition boycott parliament for nearly a year, accusing the NEC of political bias and allowing Hun Sen to steal victory at the polls.

The impasse was broken after the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) received guarantees of electoral reform, including over the independence of the NEC.

Wednesday's unanimous vote to fold the NEC into the charter will see the body reshaped to nine members -- four each for the ruling and opposition party and an independent figure agreed on by both sides.

The NEC will work "independently and neutrally" said ruling party lawmaker Pen Panha, reading the article before parliament.

"It is a step towards a new NEC which will ensure democracy, free and fair in the next elections," opposition Sam Rainsy told reporters.

"Now it is in the constitution, we all have to respect it," he added.

All 120 lawmakers present, including Prime Minister Hun Sen and Rainsy, voted to amend the consitution.

The CNRP took up its seats in the National Assembly in July this year in return for a promise of electoral reforms.

Eng Chhay Eang, a senior opposition lawmaker, told the parliament that bringing the NEC into the nation's charter would "help prevent a political crisis after each election."

Hun Sen, who has held power for nearly three decades, is regularly criticised by campaigners for ignoring human rights and stamping out dissent.