The ongoing failures of the National Election Committee (NEC) have proved that it is both unwilling and fundamentally incapable of fulfilling its role as an independent, non-partisan body guaranteeing free, fair and transparent elections in Cambodia, election monitors and analysts said Monday.
A litany of allegations implicating the NEC in the very electoral improprieties it is supposed to be investigating, and its steadfast refusal to allow an independent body to oversee that investigation, has continually exasperated the opposition, rights groups and a disgruntled public, leading many to see the NEC as an arm of the ruling CPP.
On Sunday, controversy surrounding the body again resurfaced as it was undertaking an investigation into alleged electoral irregularities after receiving orders to do so from the Constitutional Council of Cambodia.
Despite NEC President Im Suosdey saying several days earlier that packages containing original voter documents inside so-called “security boxes” were at “the safest place in the NEC,” eight of the packages were discovered to have been improperly sealed, some tied only with rope.
This led many observers to suspect the packages had been tampered with to manipulate the ballots, and proved further investigation was necessary before the NEC, which provisionally awarded the CPP a 68 to 55 seat election victory, released its final results.
According to experts and election observers, the lack of will and ability of the NEC to conduct transparent elections in the country should bring about a change in both the body’s leadership and the rules governing it.
“There is enough reason and evidence that if it won’t reform, the opposition can rightly boycott the next election. It can not go forward in the same guise—leaders, rules and regulations governing it need to be changed,” said Sok Sam Oeun, executive director of the Cambodian Defenders Project.
“The irregularities are linked definitively to electoral officials so the NEC must bear the ultimate responsibility,” he said. “The situation of the security boxes just shows that the whole institution [the NEC] has been spoiled.”
This is not the first election in which the NEC’s oversight has been brought into question, and the implication of interference in the voting process and its failure to properly solve post-election disputes has been long known.
“In 1998, I was involved in the vote count for Comfrel [Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia], and though it is not directly comparable there were very similar things wrong and little has changed,” Mr. Sam Oeun said.
According to a 1999 report by Jeffrey Gallup, then-adviser to the Cambodian Institute of Human Rights, the margin of victory for the CPP in the 1998 election was approximately 10 percentage points. However, small shifts in the results could potentially have caused the CPP to lose its legislative majority, the report concluded.
A former member of the NEC, who spoke on the condition of anonymity due to the sensitive nature of the matter, said the NEC is being restricted by the government’s influence and has itself attempted to reform but been blocked in its efforts.
“Don’t blame only the NEC, it was created under the care of the government [and] the ruling party…. The fact is that the way it is constructed—dependent on the government for its budget and politically appointed—it is logically impossible for the NEC to be neutral and impartial,” he said.
“Unless we have a new NEC that is parliamentary mandated, has its own budget and is representative of the people, and includes NGOs, media and civil society groups, it will continue to be a child who is not allowed by its parent to grow up.”
Preap Kol, executive director of Transparency International, Cambodia, said that the current distrust toward the NEC had come about due to a host of irregularities that now seem to be going unresolved.
“It is a cycle of problems and they have happened either quite systematically, or coincidentally, but the fact is that there was no real trust from the outset in the NEC, by the opposition or the people,” he said.
“The subsequent irregularities surrounding the NEC’s investigation into the irregularities have simply proved that there is a fundamental problem with its ability to handle the electoral process,” he added, referring to duplicate names on the voter list, almost half a million surplus identification forms and almost 300,000 names missing from the voter list on election day.
“If the NEC wants to prove itself to be clean it can simply open up to an independent investigation, yet this is exactly what it doesn’t want to do—they would rather suffer the allegations against them,” Mr. Kol said.
CNRP president Sam Rainsy said at a press conference Monday that his party has not acquiesced in its demand for an independent investigation that included national and international organizations and experts from the U.N.
“We cannot give the responsibility of finding the truth to the NEC and the CCC because they are the hands and legs of the Cambodian People’s Party,” Mr. Rainsy said.
Asked whether the NEC’s president and other members of the body should be fired after failing to fairly organize the election, NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha would only downplay the significance of allegations made against the institution.
“Our officers have only been working for three days and we just trained them over one morning, so we know we can improve their training in future, but the mistake does not mean that anyone tampered with the documents inside,” he said, referring to the unsealed packages that emerged on Sunday.
The vital corollary of the narrow margin of the CPP’s provisional victory, coupled with even minor fraudulent activity, shows that just a small change in the numbers would lead to a different result, such as in Kandal, where a re-vote at a single disputed polling station could conceivably give the National Assembly seat to the CNRP—preliminary results show the CPP with just 166 more votes than the opposition in the province.
Phay Siphan, spokesman for the Council of Ministers, said that the government accepted there were minor irregularities, but said that since the election occurred within the existing electoral framework, the laws and establishments already in place were the only parameters in which they could be investigated.
Still, he added that by taking their seats in the National Assembly, the CNRP had a chance to push through reforms as an effective opposition party.
“The CNRP has to become an opposition party, not a revolutionary party, and take its seats in the assembly. Once there, and according to the rule of law, then they can ameliorate circumstances or conditions that are not favorable.”
(Additional reporting by Khoum Narim)