The National Election Committee will not act on an appeal by an election monitoring group for immediate measures to ensure the neutrality of local election officials until it receives formal complaints.
“We need the reports of the observers. We must wait for complaints,” NEC spokesman Leng Sochea said Tuesday. He claimed that an apparent lack of neutrality was confined to a few individual cases and was not an endemic problem among election officials.
Leng Sochea was responding to a report by the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, Comfrel, that called on the NEC to take measures to ensure the impartiality and independence of local election officials.
“While voter registration took place relatively smoothly, the process was marred by serious and widespread violations of the electoral law and NEC regulations,” Comfrel warned.
The independent election monitoring group said the observations of its 2,000 staff placed throughout the country has led it to conclude that the local electoral commissions lacked “the competence, strength and neutrality necessary to ensure a free and fair election process during the campaign, polling and vote counting.”
One particular concern raised by the group was the failure or unwillingness of election officials to prevent village and commune chiefs from entering registration stations and, in some cases, interfering with the registration process.
Several observer groups, including the European Union, have identified the interference or intimidating presence of village chiefs, the majority of whom are CPP, as one of the key concerns for a free and fair poll.
But while Leng Sochea said that the NEC needed such reports from observers in order to take action against its officials, he drew a distinction between the anomalies noted during registration and those likely to occur during the rest of the election campaign.
“In the registration period, we didn’t have the security forces of the government to help,” he said, explaining why election staff had not prevented local government officials from entering the registration stations. “During polling, we will be cooperating with the authorities and the security forces.”
Many critics, however, have questioned the neutrality of those forces, led by National Police Chief Hok Lundy, a known CPP hard-liner.
In one incident reported by Comfrel observers, a soldier fired gunshots into the air close to a registration station, undermining government promises of discipline and neutrality among police and army ranks.
Other incidents in which election officials failed to recognize the observer status of Comfrel staff were brushed off by Leng Sochea as being the result of ignorance rather than political motivation.
He acknowledged the lack of experience and training of the local election officials, but said they were “trying to do their best” to ensure a “good atmosphere” for the July 26 polls.