Cambodian Senate Elections

ASIAWATCH — As Cambodians prepare to digest the release of the final results in last weekend’s Senate elections, they should at least feel comfortable with the knowledge that the body that convened its first meeting in 1999 is one of the more democratic upper houses of parliament in the world today. The Cambodian Herald Reports

Final results were due Sunday but have been delayed amid complaints from the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.
At first glance, the upper house of the Cambodian  parliament resembles the Senate in France. But the combination of indirect elections for the majority of senators and the appointment of a small minority makes the Cambodian Senate more like the upper house of parliament in India, widely described as the world’s biggest democracy. Interestingly, Myanmar has chosen a similar model for its new upper house of parliament, although the minority appointed (by the military) is proportionally much bigger.

A total of 11,470 Cambodians were eligible to vote in the indirect election for the 57 seats up for grabs last Sunday, all of whom were elected under universal suffrage. Of those allowed to vote, 11,351 were commune councillors elected in 2007. The remaining 119 were members of the National Assembly elected during the last election for the lower house in 2008. The four other seats in the 61-member Senate are appointed by the King and the National Assembly.

As voters were going to the polls last Sunday, an American news service with a long-standing presence in Phnom Penh told the world what was happening. Or at least what it thought was happening. Subsequently picked up  by countless newspapers and broadcast media,  the report asserted that the Senate elections in Cambodia were “closed to the general population and criticized for lacking credibility.” Largely closed was certainly true. But criticized by whom was not exactly clear, although the report did refer to unidentified “local monitoring groups” who reportedly “denounced the Senate elections, saying they do not reflect the will of the people.”

Such an assessment of the indirect election in Cambodia is not surprising. With their limited knowledge of the outside world, most Americans tend to view as deeply flawed anything that doesn’t resemble their own system of democracy, with a Congress comprising a House of Representatives and a Senate that are both directly elected.

If that’s the case, then most of America’s partners in the Group of Seven (G7), the world’s most advanced industrialized nations, must have flawed democracies too since only Italy and Japan have direct elections for their upper houses of parliament (although Italy has an age requirement for voters in upper house elections that is higher than for voters in lower house elections). According to American thinking, the other G7 countries must be even worse.

Take France. It has a system like Cambodia where senators are indirectly elected by an electoral college, in this case comprising about 150,000 elected officials. This represents about three-tenths of one percent of the country’s 44.4 million eligible voters. That compares with a bit more than one-tenth of one percent of the 9.2 million eligible voters in Cambodia. The “local monitoring groups” will no doubt argue that France is therefore three times more “democratic” than Cambodia. But the fact is that the electoral colleges in both countries at least indirectly reflect the wills of the French and Cambodian people. In both cases, we’re talking about less than one percent of registered voters.

As for Germany, members of the upper house of parliament are simply appointed by the country’s state governments and can be recalled at any time. Britain and Canada are even less representative with members of the upper houses of parliament being appointed by the British queen, or her representative in the case of Canada. Appointments are  based on the recommendations of the prime ministers of the two countries. In other words, members of the upper houses of parliament in both Britain and Canada effectively represent the will of a couple of people.

Among countries in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, six have bicameral systems of parliament with two chambers. Apart from Cambodia, these are Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand. The other four ASEAN members, Brunei, Singapore, Laos and Vietnam, have unicameral parliaments with only one chamber.

Malaysia, a former British colony, has an upper house of parliament that is similar to those in Britain and Canada. Not all Senators are appointed by the Malaysian king, however, since a minority is elected by state legislative assemblies. Thailand has a hybrid system where a bit more than half the senators are elected and a bit less than half are appointed. So too does Myanmar where most of members of the upper house are elected with a sizable minority being appointed by the military. The only two ASEAN countries where all members of the upper house are elected directly by the people are Indonesia and the Philippines.

Elsewhere  in the Asia-Pacific region, upper houses in Australia and Japan are also directly elected, although the voting systems differ. On the other hand, most members of the upper house of the Indian parliament are indirectly elected, although a small minority are appointed by the country’s president, similar to the Cambodian system where the King and  National Assembly appoint two members each. In Russia, half of the upper house of parliament is indirectly elected and the other half appointed. As for New Zealand, its upper house, the Legislative Council, was abolished in 1951.

With the exception of Myanmar, where information comes from the CIA, the following is taken from the websites of upper houses of parliament in the G7 nations, ASEAN and other countries in the Asia-Pacific region:

AUSTRALIA (directly elected)

In Australia, senators are elected under a system of proportional representation. The Senate has 76 members including 12 elected from each of the country’s six states. The other four are elected from the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory which are each allocated two seats in the upper house. Senators served six-year terms with half the Senate retiring every three years.

BRITAIN (appointed)

In Britain, most of the 830 members of the upper house, known as the House of Lords, are life peers appointed by the Queen on the recommendations of the Prime Minister. Others are 26 archbishops and bishops from the Church of England and hereditary peers elected internally.  Church members pass on their membership to the next most senior bishop when they retire. Life peers used to be able to pass on their House of Lords membership to their children.  Although the rights of such hereditary peers to sit and vote in the upper house ended in 1999, internal elections have allowed 92 to remain. Since 2000, an independent public body known as the House of Lords Appointment Commission makes recommendations for appointing non-party-political life peers and vets nominations for life peers.

CANADA (appointed)

In Canada, senators are appointed by the Governor General, the representative of the Queen of England who also serves as the Queen of Canada. The appointments are based on recommendations by the Prime Minister. The Senate usually has 105 members representing different provinces or territories (24 from the maritime provinces in the east, 24 from Quebec, 24 from Ontario, 24 from the western provinces, six from Newfoundland and Labrador and one each from Yukon Territory, the Northwest Territories and Nunavut). Senators have to be at least 30 years old and own property and live in the province or territory that they represent. They hold office until the age of 75.

FRANCE (indirectly elected)

In France, senators are indirectly elected by an electoral college of about 150,000 people. The eligible voters are members of the National Assembly as well as regional, general and municipal councillors who are elected under universal suffrage. As of 2011, the Senate had 348 members (326 from metropolitan and overseas departments, 12 representing French people abroad, 2 from French Polynesia, New Caledonia and Mayotte and 1 each from Wallis and Futuna, Saint-Barthelemy, Saint-Martin and Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon). Senators, who must be at least 24 years old, hold office for six years with half the seats coming up for re-election every three years.

GERMANY (appointed)

In Germany, members of the upper house, known as the Bundesrat, are appointed by the country’s 16 state governments. The Bundesrat has 69 members with between three and six members appointed by each state. In the federal states, only the Minister-Presidents and ministers can be members. In the city states of Berlin, Bremen and Hamburg, membership of the Bundesrat is limited to mayors and senators. Secretaries of state can be Bundesrat members if they have a seat and say in the cabinet of their federal state. Membership is decided by state governments and ends automatically if a member leaves the state government or if the state government recalls the member. All Bundesrat members have a twofold role in that they hold office in their federal state while simultaneously holding a federal office.

INDIA (majority indirectly elected, minority appointed)

In India, the upper house of parliament is known as the Council of States (Rajya Sabha). Its maximum strength is 250 members of which 238 are elected by the Legislative Assembly in each state and two of the country’s union territories with 12 appointed by the President of India. The actual strength of the council is currently 245 members of whom 229 are elected from the states, 4 from the two union territories (2 each from Delhi and Puducherry) with the remaining 12 appointed by the President. Members of the council serve six-year terms with a third of the members rotating every two years.

INDONESIA  (directly elected)

In Indonesia, the upper house of the People’s Representative Assembly is known as the House of Regional Representatives. The 132-member assembly was created by constitutional changes in 2001 that sought to develop a bicameral parliamentary system to replace the unicameral system. Since 2004, four senators have been elected from each of the country’s 33 provinces for five-year terms.

ITALY (majority directly elected, minority appointed)

In Italy, the Senate has 315 elected senators who must be at least 40 years of age. Only voters over the age of 25 can take part in Senate elections, unlike the Chamber of Deputies, the lower house, where eligible voters are over 18. Elections are held every five years. In addition to the elected members, the Senate also has life senators who include former Presidents of the Republic and people appointed by the President for outstanding merit in the social, scientific, artistic or literary fields. There are currently six life senators,

JAPAN (directly elected)

In Japan, the upper house of parliament is known as the House of Councillors. It has 242 members of whom 146 are elected from the eligible voters in the country’s 47 prefectures. The other 96 members are elected under a  proportional representation system. Members of the House of Councillors serve for six years with half of the upper house retiring every three years.

MALAYSIA (majority appointed, minority indirectly elected)

In Malaysia, senators are either appointed by the king, the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, or indirectly elected by state parliaments. Known in Malay as the Dewan Negara (House of the Nation), the Senate has 70 members. In each of the 13 states, the State Legislative Assembly elects two senators. The other 44 senators are appointed by the king on the advice of the Prime Minister including two members from the Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur and one member each from the Federal Territory of Labuan and the Federal Territory of Putra Jaya. Senators must be at least 30 years old, be of “sound mind” and not be an undischarged bankrupt or have a criminal record. Senators serve for three-year terms for a maximum of two terms.
MYANMAR (majority directly elected, minority appointed)
In Myanmar, the new upper house is known as the Amyotha Hluttaw (House of Nationalities) and has 224 members including 168 elected directly for the first time in late 2010. The remaining 56 are appointed by the military. Members of the Amyotha Hluttaw serve five-year terms.

THE PHILIPPINES (directly elected)

In the Philippines, all senators are elected under a “plurarity-at-large” voting system of non-proportional representation. The Senate, which has 24 members, is a reincarnation of the upper house of Congress formed by a 1940 amendment to the 1935 Constitution. The Senate was abolished in 1972 and returned only after a new constitution was adopted in 1987. Senators serve a term of six years and cannot serve beyond two consecutive terms.

RUSSIA (half indirectly elected, half appointed)

In Russia, the upper house of parliament, known as the Council of the Federation, consists of 166 members. Two members represent each “federal subject”, one elected from the legislative branch and the other appointed by the executive branch. The 83 federal subjects of the Russian Federation comprise 21 republics, 46 provinces, 9 territories, 4 autonomous districts, 2 federal cities and 1 autonomous province. Like Bundesrat members in Germany, members of the upper house in Russia effectively hold two positions.

THAILAND (majority directly elected, minority appointed)

In Thailand, senators are either elected or appointed by a seven-member Senators Selection Commission. Under the 2007 constitution, the Senate has 150 members. Since 2008, one is elected from each of the country’s 76 provinces. The other 74 appointed Senators are from academic institutions, the private sector, the public sector, professional organizations and other sectors including the military. The Selection Commission comprises the President of the Constitutional Court, the Chairman of the Election Commission, the President of the Ombudsman’s Office, the Chairman of the National Anti-Corruption Commission, the Chairman of the State Audit Commission, a  judge of the Supreme Court of Justice and a judge of the Supreme Administrative Court. Terms are for six years and Senators must be at least 40 years old.

UNITED STATES (directly elected)

In the United States, senators are directly elected and serve for six years. Each of the country’s 50 states has two senators regardless of population. Elections are staggered so that a third of the 100 senators rotate every two years.

 Photo by Luke Hunt

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Luke Hunt is a foreign correspondent, author and occasional photographer who has covered much of Asia fr the last 30 years.

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