cham bok commune, Takeo province – Ou Sarin is proud of the work he has done at the commune election committee office here.
True, it’s just a wooden shed with a table and a few chairs, but the radio is up and running and the neatly lettered list of registered candidates is posted for voters to examine.
But election official Ou Sarin hasn’t been paid in three months. In fact, he and his co-workers have had to dig into their own pockets to raise the $5 monthly rent for the shed.
Across Route 2 in Trapaing Krasaing commune, election official Chuop Chun got around the rent problem by setting up the commune election headquarters under his own house.
Yet Chuop Chun still has to pay to charge the battery that runs the headquarters radio, or to fill his motorbike with gas for the hour-long trip to provincial election headquarters in Takeo town.
While commune election officials like Ou Sarin and Chuop Chun are wondering when–or if–they’ll ever get paid, money from donors is starting to pile up in Phnom Penh, leading election workers to wonder what’s taking so long.
It’s been more than a month since Japan announced a $3 million donation to help fund the first-ever commune council elections on Feb 3. That money is sitting at the Ministry of Finance awaiting distribution, officials say.
The UN Development Program has just authorized another $505,906 donation to help pay off “materials, transportation, office expenses and incidental” costs incurred during the registration period, such as Ou Sarin’s rent or Chuop Chun’s gasoline.
There’s more money on the way.
The UNDP said Friday the United Kingdom has donated $730,000 to pay for voter registration. The agency is processing a $940,000 donation from Sweden and the Netherlands, while an additional $470,000 is due to arrive within two weeks from Canada and France, UNDP Election Coordinator Jonathan Burroughs said.
One more big payment, the $2.7 million promised by the European Commission, is nearing final approval in Brussels, Burroughs said.
“It’s taken a little work, but I think we’re through the bottleneck period now. The money should flow a little more easily from now on,” he said.
That money has been released to pay for August, September and October salaries, NEC Finance Director Chhay Kim said last week.
“I have confirmation from provincial election officials in Phnom Penh that all of the workers have been paid,” Chhay Kim said. It will take a little longer for the money to get to all the workers in the provinces, but that it is on its way, he added.
The NEC will still owe workers for the months of June and July, and will get that back pay to them when it can, Chhay Kim said. The money has been slow mainly because donor money has been slow, and the cash that is finally arriving is earmarked for other expenses, he said.
For example, Chhay Kim said, Japan’s $3 million is to be used for the NEC computer center and operating costs such as transport and communications. So while that means rent money for Oum Sarin and battery-and-gas money for Chuop Chun, it can’t be used for salaries.
The Cambodian government pledged more than $6 million to cover salaries, and has paid more than $5 million, Chhay Kim said. Some of that money was used to buy registration materials when donor money didn’t arrive.
There are also physical difficulties in getting the money to some remote provinces, he said. The nation’s banking system is not yet developed enough to allow election accounts in provincial headquarters, meaning money must be physically transported around the country.
The delays and confusion over funding have led to rumors of malfeasance and kickbacks at the NEC, rumors Chhay Kim denies.
“All our expenditures are very transparent. There were no kickbacks. We needed those materials,” Chhay Kim said.
The NEC is investigating allegations of fraud in Takeo province, where some workers claim that several thousand dollars intended for commune election workers never got to them, he added.
“I have been working hard on this problem. Our investigators are still in Takeo. We expect a report soon,” he said.
In Soeng commune, all the commotion about money seems ridiculous to Bun Sam Ol, 49, the deputy commune election committee chief.
He could certainly use the salary he is owed, but he said he didn’t take the election job to get rich. He’s disappointed that only 89 percent of the eligible voters in his commune were able to register, due to a shortage of materials.
But isn’t 89 percent well over the national average of 83 percent?
He walked over to the center pole holding up his house, reached up and took down the book of records from the 1998 election. That year, he said, his commune registered 97.63 percent.
“People here take voting seriously. I think the election will be fair. In this area, they were in the past,” he said.
While election officials and observers argue over the money and point fingers and criticize, Bun Sam Ol said he wants to stay focused on his objective.
“People here want to vote very much, because they want more development for all society, not just for one party,” he said. “They want all parties to work together for the sake of the country.”