Independent Observers Complain About Pre-Vote Conditions

A day removed from Sunday’s commune elections, independent observers remained mostly positive about polling day but, troubled more by the conditions leading up to the day itself, refrained from declaring the elections free and fair.

The government’s National Election Committee has yet to release official final results. But government-aligned Fresh News reported that the ruling CPP won roughly 70 percent of the country’s 1,646 communes, with most of the rest going to the CNRP.

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Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, takes questions about Sunday’s commune elections at a news conference in Phnom Penh on Monday. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

About 7 million Cambodians cast ballots on Sunday, more than in any past election.

Despite the high turnout, the so-called “Situation Room,” a coalition of NGOs that sent some 14,000 observers across the country on Election Day, said on Monday it would be looking into why nearly 900,000 registered voters did not cast ballots.

At a news conference in Phnom Penh, Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said they suspected most of the non-voters were garment workers living away from home and Cambodians working overseas.

Heading into the vote, the government dismissed the CNRP’s calls to help migrant workers vote as unfeasible and—breaking with past practice—did not order garment factories to give their employees enough time off to make the trip to their home communes. The Labor Ministry refused to explain the change.

“Why did our government not try to find a way for them to be able to vote?” Mr. Panha said.

During the 2013 national election, which saw the CPP take surprisingly heavy losses, garment workers made up a large share of the opposition’s rallies.

Transparency International Cambodia (TIC) sent out more than 400 observers of its own on Sunday.

At a separate news conference on Monday morning, TIC director Preap Kol also raised pre-election concerns, pointing to a new law placing added restrictions on NGOs, legal amendments giving the government sweeping new powers to break up political parties, and Prime Minister Hun Sen’s constant warnings of war should the CPP lose, which he blamed for creating an “intimidating environment.”

Because of the atmosphere leading up to Sunday, he said, the elections could not be declared “100 percent free and fair.”

Over the past two years, several rights workers and opposition figures, including two lawmakers, have been arrested on charges widely seen as politically motivated. Several others remain free but have open cases or investigations hanging over them, including CNRP President Kem Sokha.

But TIC and the Situation Room both remained mostly positive about Election Day itself, pending their final reports and with the exception of what they described as relatively minor reports of irregularities.

The Situation Room has already filed a complaint with the NEC over 12 observers it says were pressured into abandoning their duties the night before the elections by police and other officials in Kandal province’s Loeuk Dek district.

The NEC said it was looking into the case. The district police chief, Ros Chantha, denied the allegations.

The Situation Room has also raised concerns about 19 communes across the country with polling sites where the majority of voters were soldiers.

During last year’s registration period, the CNRP complained about a handful of communes where soldiers were allowed to register despite neither living nor working there, in breach of election laws. The opposition was worried that the CPP, which maintains a heavy grip on the army, would misuse soldiers to swing the communes its way.

At the time the NEC conceded that the registrations were a mistake but downplayed the problem, suggesting that the soldiers might end up being assigned to the communes on Election Day to provide security.

On Sunday, observers reported seeing hundreds of soldiers being trucked into two Siem Reap province communes, Ta Siem and Boeng Mealea, from outside. In 2012 the former went to the opposition and the latter to the CPP. According to preliminary results from the NEC this year, the parties switched places in each.

During Monday’s Situation Room news conference, Am Sam Ath, monitoring manager for rights group Licadho, said the NGOs were investigating the communes for voting irregularities but had yet to find any. He said the problem should have been dealt with last year when voters were being registered.

The Situation Room also noted isolated cases of polling stations not tallying ballots clearly and not posting the final counts in public. TIC noted cases of “unauthorized individuals,” mostly local politicians, milling around polling sites during voting and counting, polling sites opening late, and voters with proper ID not finding their names on voter rolls.

Even so, both groups said these commune elections were far cleaner than in 2012.

(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Byrne)

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