Silvio Gonzato, the director of democracy and human rights for the European Union, on Friday ended a four-day trip to Cambodia to assess the support that could be provided to electoral reform here by saying that many challenges lie ahead to ensure credible elections in 2017 and 2018.
Mr. Gonzato said during a press conference at the E.U.’s office in Phnom Penh that he felt reassured—by meetings with officials including Sik Bunhok, chairman of the new National Election Committee (NEC)—that the E.U. will be able to find support in its efforts to promote fair elections here.
“In our meeting with the president of the National Election Committee [Mr. Bunhok]…we stressed very much the need for a culture of inclusivity and transparency, and public consultation in the work the National Election Committee has to carry out in the coming months,” Mr. Gonzato said.
“We were comforted by the fact that he said the same spirit of bipartisanship that has applied for the NEC…will also apply for NEC structures at the provincial and commune level.”
The new bipartisan NEC was formed in late March after nine months of negotiations between the ruling CPP and opposition CNRP on electoral reform, and is now working on creating a new voter registry to eradicate hundreds of thousands of missing names and double names that plagued past elections.
Mr. Gonzato said completing such reforms before commune elections in 2017 and the national election in 2018 would be difficult, and that the E.U. would be able to continue providing support to the extent the NEC continues to operate positively and independently of the state.
“For us, it’s important also to ensure that the procedure is transparent and that the NEC is fully in control of the registration of voters, because we have our own constituency back in Europe, and the European Parliament wants to ensure we spend taxpayers’ money well and wisely,” Mr. Gonzato said.
“We did not discuss the details about the future financing or assistance that the E.U. could grant to the National Election Committee [but] it’s clear for us, for the European Union, that there has to be coherence between the outcomes of our election observations and the scope of our electoral assistance.”
“[E.U. recommendations] highlight problems that are inherent in the electoral process, and it would be unacceptable for our political masters that we finance or provide electoral assistance if we are not reassured that the authorities in Cambodia are addressing these shortcomings,” Mr. Gonzato said.
The diplomat said that the troubling aspects of the new election laws passed in March include provisions for fines for election observers who “place blame” on election officials and also allow the NEC to disqualify entire parties from an election if one of their senior officials violates election laws.
He also questioned a provision that bans anyone from “insulting” political parties during election campaigns, and said the NEC ought to clarify its interpretation of the rule.
“A statement which is critical of a party or which is critical of a specific political figure cannot be seen as an insult. That is part of the political debate,” Mr. Gonzato said.