On the eve of historic and high-stakes national elections, the head of a leading national watchdog group said that widespread intimidation has made it impossible for today’s polls to be considered free and fair.
But Thun Saray, president of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said there is still hope the elections might be “reasonably credible” if there is no major cheating or intimidation today. As many as 5.4 million voters are eligible to take part in the first multi-party elections in three decades organized by Cambodians.
“Any possibility for an assessment…as reasonably credible is contingent upon a very high level of integrity in the polling and vote counting process,” Thun Saray warned Saturday.
Acceptance of the polls’ results is essential to ending the ongoing political crisis the nation has suffered since last year, when Prince Norodom Ranariddh was ousted as first premier after the coalition he led with Second Prime Minister Hun Sen collapsed in two days of violence July 5-6, 1997.
An election accepted by the international community would allow foreign aid to resume and could unlock the vacant seat in the UN General Assembly that is now claimed by both the Hun Sen-led government and Prince Ranariddh.
But recognition of the polls’ was uncertain Saturday, as Comfrel—one of the three national observer groups the Joint International Observer Group coordinates with—said the general atmosphere for the elections “has not been satisfactory” and could not be deemed free and fair.
“Free elections means absence of intimidation of voters, and up to now we see during May and June more than 100 cases of intimidation and political killings,” he said. “That is why we cannot say free, fully free elections.
“The pre-election environment has been fraught with interference by village and commune chiefs, other government officials at all levels and political party agents of the ruling party.”
Still, Comfrel said that while any level of political killings is unacceptable, the situation could be considered an improvement over the 1993 elections, which the group said saw 380 killings.
And for elections to be fair, Thun Saray said, opposition parties would have to have had access to the broadcast media.
“Before the election campaign, the ruling party dominated the electronic media,” he said. “This is why we cannot say it is truly fair.”
Despite the absence of free and fair conditions, Comfrel may still accept results of the election if the polling and ballot-counting process is clean.
“We will wait to see the election day and the counting day,” Thun Saray said.
“If it goes smoothly, with no violence, no intimidation, no cheating, no interference and also if Comfrel…[observers] are allowed to enter polling stations and observe the process, then I think we can say it is an acceptable, a credible election,” he said.
Thun Saray said he was still worried about problems during the counting process that begins Monday. “We will ask the commune counting centers to provide us with the results of the counting…so we can do parallel counting.”
Comfrel’s statement came a day after the Joint International Observer Group issued an assessment saying that despite serious problems, the elections still could be “broadly representative” of the Cambodian people’s will. JIOG spokesman Sven Linder on Friday repeatedly ducked the question of whether the elections could be free and fair.
Thun Saray said Saturday that the JIOG and Comfrel statements were substantially the same, “we just have a little bit more of a stronger tone.”
Asked if Comfrel’s willingness to settle for “reasonably credible” instead of free and fair might reward those who were intimidating voters and serve to legitimize the government that emerged after last year’s fighting, Thun Saray replied, “We don’t know whether you are right or wrong, but what way, what alternative is there? I don’t see any other alternative—only war, only fighting.”
“We cannot say we are satisfied fully with the progress…but these events can pave the way for the continued progress for democracy in Cambodia,” he said.
The Comfrel statement did have some praise for the electoral process, including relatively free campaigning and the high turnout for voter registration.
And while the group took issue with the composition and independence of the National Election Committee, it did give the NEC credit for its maiden effort at organizing elections.
“The NEC, under the constraints of limited funding and no previous experience, has completed enormous tasks within a very tight time,” Comfrel said.
Earlier this year, many analysts said that the elections would have to be delayed because the inexperienced NEC would not be able to organize a vote, including compiling a voter registry from scratch, in just seven months.
Voter registration, which in 30 days yielded 98 percent of the estimated 5.4 million voters, has been cited as an NEC success.
Saturday, the provincial and commune officials were still scrambling to get all the technical aspects squared away—and the NEC was still trying to deal with the thorny issue of untrained and suspect national observers—but NEC General Secretary Im Suorsdei said electoral officials were basically ready for the polling.
Five years after the UN-administered elections in 1993, the culmination of a massive $2-billion attempt to end more than a decade of devastating civil war, the stakes for these polls are high.
The CPP-led government is hoping to retain power and gain legitimacy through the elections and restore foreign aid lost after the party gained near-total power after last July’s violence.
The CPP has walked a fine line during the run-up to the elections, waging an aggressive membership drive labeled as intimidation by the UN special envoy for human rights, while trying to keep the process clean-looking enough to be accepted by the international community.
The stakes are also high for 1993 election winner Prince Ranariddh, who insists his ouster last year was a coup d’etat staged by Hun Sen, and is hoping to regain power. And the upstart Sam Rainsy Party, led by the former finance minister of the same name, wants to establish itself as a political force.
Perhaps it is the long-suffering Cambodian people, who in the past 25 years have fallen victim to Khmer Rouge atrocities, Vietnamese occupation, famine, poverty and civil war, who have the most at stake today. Random interviews Saturday showed Cambodians eager to have a say in their political future.
Chea Chanrasmei, 36, expressed her hope for the polls. “I hope Cambodia will get new leaders and hopefully development.”
A monk at Wat Langka expressed similar desire. “We hope Cambodia will get a new government and the best leader for leading the country.”
Do Theara, 28, is hopeful of the outcome. “We will get new leaders and will get peace—if the government hands over power peacefully.”
(Additional reporting by Saing Soenthrith)