Amid Calls for Probe, NEC’s Independence in the Spotlight

After Sunday’s tight election, Cambodia’s oft-criticized National Election Committee (NEC) finds itself in a potentially decisive position.

Prime Minister Hun Sen said Wednesday that the CPP would take part in the investigation into poll irregularities demanded by the opposition, but that the party would follow the NEC’s lead.

The NEC has said it will investigate on its own, a far cry from the committee encompassing the U.N. and international community requested by the opposition CNRP.

Analysts and the CNRP say the NEC is unlikely to conduct a transparent and independent inquiry into allegations of electoral fraud due to close ties between the body and the ruling party.

NEC chairman Im Suosdey is the younger brother of CPP Education Minister Im Sothy. Mr. Suosdey, who has held his post since 2002, was himself deputy chairman of the central committee of the Youth Association of Cambodia (YAC)—the CPP’s youth wing—from 1980 to 1995. He later joined the Interior Ministry’s election bureau, according to his official resume on the NEC’s website.

Other members of the nine-member committee include Em Sophath, who sat on the Youth Propaganda and Education Commission in the Vietnamese-led government of the 1980s and was later the director of the YAC’s international relations department.

Another member is Som Chandyna, who worked in interrogation at Phnom Penh’s Borei Keila Police School from 1983 to 1995, and has worked at the CPP-controlled Ministry of Justice since then.

Non-CPP aligned members have been elected to the committee—Vice Chair Sin Chum Bo was a Funcinpec appointment for instance—but observers say CPP loyalists hold a majority.

NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha, who declined to comment, also worked at the YAC—as director of the association’s propaganda and education department—before moving to the NEC in 1998.

“They claim to be independent, but they are not perceived to be independent,” said Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International Cambodia, adding that problems at polling booths Sunday had further reduced trust in the NEC. “The integrity of the election body is now in question with these irregularities.”

In relation to the voter list, he said, CPP commune councilors and clerks could come in for some criticism since they have the power to request that names are removed from the electoral roll.

Mr. Kol also noted that both the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia and the National Democratic Institute had voiced concerns about the voter lists well ahead of the election, which had been ignored by the NEC.

Another warning for the NEC was from the U.N.’s human rights envoy to Cambodia, Surya Subedi, who wrote in a report on Cambodia in July 2012 that changes were needed to give people confidence in the NEC.

“Although the National Elec­tion Committee has taken significant steps towards increasing understanding of the right to vote and the formal procedure of voting…the National Election Committee continues to be dominated by supporters of the ruling party,” Mr. Subedi wrote, foreseeing many of the complaints made by voters and independent monitors since Sunday.

“In addition, its operation of the voter registration system has left something to be desired in previous elections: controversy over its handling of voter registration during the 2007 commune elections (in particular the removal of many names from the register) was cause for concern at the time and similar concerns were raised in relation to the commune council elections in June 2012.”

Lawyer Sok Sam Oun said the CPP’s influence over the election body was evident in both the composition of the NEC and the provincial and commune level election committees.

“They are not independent enough,” he said, but added that it was hard to say for sure that active CPP supporters dominate the top level of the NEC.

“The officials [in the NEC], most of them are ruling party. They might temporarily resign from their party, but they are still with the party.”

In October, two new NEC members were elected in an opaque selection process conducted by the Interior Ministry—headed by Interior Minister Sar Kheng—and a vote in the CPP—controlled National Assembly.

The opposition boycotted the vote, claiming the two new members—Sin Dim and Sor Sophary, a former Supreme Court judge and the former Phnom Penh Municipal Court president, respectively—were not independent choices.

Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak, Interior Ministry spokesman, said they were chosen in response to a recommendation by Mr. Subedi that judicial officials would make good appointments.

“We chose people who have worked neutrally in the court system,” he said, referring to Cambodia’s judiciary, which is also often seen as lacking independence from the ruling party.

One of the concerns voiced about the NEC over the years has been the fact that its headquarters are situated within the compound of the Interior Ministry.

Within the next two years, however, the NEC will move to a new location, which has raised its own questions. It will be housed in the under-construction Naga2 extension of the NagaWorld hotel-casino.

CNRP chief whip Son Chhay said the opposition and the voters themselves do not consider the NEC to be independent of the CPP.

“This organization has been created to steal votes for the CPP,” he said. “Everyone knows that the NEC is the CPP.”

“If people have nothing to hide, why are they afraid of an independent investigation?” he added.

(Additional reporting by Phorn Bopha)

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