But Poll Can Be ‘Broadly Representative’ of Nation
Despite violence and intimidation of voters, Sunday’s elections can be “broadly representative” of the people’s will if there are no attempts to manipulate the results, the spokesman for the Joint International Observer Group said Friday.
But the JIOG’s pre-election statement made no mention of whether the polls could be seen as “free and fair.”
The statement, delivered by JIOG spokesman Sven Linder of the European Union observer delegation, conveyed a laundry list of concerns, including intimidation, efforts to undermine belief in ballot secrecy, unequal access to media and appeals to ethnic hatred.
“Despite these serious concerns, the JIOG today feels justified in anticipating that reasonable conditions exist for an election on Sunday…that can be broadly representative of the will of the Cambodian people,” Linder said Friday.
But he said the international community’s acceptance of the election results would depend on “appropriate conduct” that does not include voter intimidation or ballot manipulation.
“This conclusion is naturally subject to the conduct of polling and counting procedures in a manner that does not distort this will, respecting all voters’ right to express their choice freely in a secret ballot,” he said.
Linder expressly refused to use the terms “free and fair” to describe the electoral process thus far. And he refused to be pinned down when grilled on whether JIOG’s use of a different term from the one consistently used by the international community in the past meant that the process could be considered not free and fair.
“I know exactly what you are getting at. I am not going into this free and fair discussion at the moment,” he told reporters.
But, he insisted, “This is not a watering down. This is definitely not a watering down of anything.”
JIOG, the umbrella organization for more than 500 international election observers, generally praised the 30-day voter registration process earlier this year.
Noting that 95 percent of those observers believed eligible to vote had registered, Linder said the numbers give “a clear signal…that the Cambodian people are determined to use this opportunity to decide their own political future.”
As to the electoral campaign period, which officially ended Friday, the JIOG assessment was mixed.
The statement noted an “active election campaign” with no violence at public rallies and with several NGOs able to educate voters and monitor the process.
But JIOG expressed grave concern over alleged political killings, “a climate of impunity” and numerous cases of intimidation.
“Efforts have been made to weaken voters’ belief in the secrecy of the ballot. Ethnic prejudices have been promoted in some places,” the statement said.
“The unequal access to electronic media before the election campaign may also have influenced the political climate…in a negative way,” the statement said.
Linder bristled at a suggestion that the declaration of “reasonable conditions” for the polls, in spite of the concerns, gave the implicit message that the international community was willing to accept a certain level of violence and intimidation.
“No cases of intimidation, no cases of violence are acceptable, but one has to look at the whole situation when one makes one’s assessment,” he said.
The JIOG statement, while giving a tentative green light for the polls, also warned that police and security forces must act neutrally during the elections and that village and commune chiefs could not be inside polling places except to vote themselves.
The statement hinted that attempts to manipulate vote-counting could cause the election results to be rejected by the international community. Final approval of the polls would depend on “appropriate conduct” after the elections “without any attempts to undermine the original outcome.”
The group also cautioned that violence during and after the polls “could disturb the electoral process and influence the JIOG’s final assessment in a negative way.”
Still, JIOG said it would take into account Cambodia’s devastating history when making its final assessment.
“High standards are obviously required for any election. At the same time, no political process can be taken out of its historical context,” the statement said.
Linder admitted later that Cambodia’s bloody history means the country’s elections may be held to a lower standard than those in established democracies.
“We are talking about genocide, civil war, widespread violence,” he said.
“You cannot go directly from such a situation to elections the way they are held today, for example, in Sweden, the Netherlands or Britain.”