After hours of heated debate, the Joint International Observer Group declared Sunday’s polling and Monday’s counting “free and fair” to the extent that it reflects “the will of the Cambodian people.”
“In the end, efforts to intimidate sections of the Cambodian population appear not to have significantly influenced the conduct or the climate of the polling day itself,” the group said in a statement issued at a midnight press conference.
JIOG spokesman Sven Linder of the European Union observer delegation delivered the statement, based on reports received from the group’s almost 500 international observers. He said the JIOG “believes that all parties should accept and honor the results of the election without any attempt to undermine the original outcome.”
Linder said he was unaware that the National Election Committee earlier in the evening had decided to delay reporting preliminary results.
“I have just been informed about that,” he said, adding that the NEC probably had good technical reasons for the delay. He didn’t elaborate.
A Western political observer said early this morning that it was remarkable the statement had been issued with all the questions still being asked about the integrity of the polling and counting process.
“Wow, that’s pretty lame, it’s worse than expected,” said the observer. “I’m at a loss for words.”
A diplomat at the JIOG meeting acknowledged early today that there was heated debate and “many problems” during the two Monday evening sessions to agree on and draft a statement.
But “everyone is pleased” with the statement, the diplomat said. “We have all the consolidated information, the results of our international observers. Ninety percent of the almost 500 JIOG observers were ‘very satisfied’ with what they saw on polling day and counting day; 95 percent said at least ‘very good.’”
The JIOG statement said that the elections organized by the Cambodian government represented a “major achievement and step forward” compared with the 1993 elections.
“In general, the polling achieved democratic standards and on the day it appears that people felt able to vote without fear of reprisal.”
Except for the Khmer Rouge attack in Anlong Veng, no serious cases of violence had been reported, Linder said, “nor, at this stage, any serious irregularities that could have a significant effect on the integrity of the voting process.”
He said the high voter turnout was a clear indication that “the Cambodian people are embracing democracy and are determined to decide their own political future.”
“Against this background, it is the impression of the JIOG that what could be observed by us on polling and counting day was a process that was free and fair to an extent that it enables it to reflect, in a credible way, the will of the Cambodian people.”
Linder was grilled about whether 500 observers were enough to make such judgments, whether the statement was premature given NEC’s delay and whether there were concerns that ballot-box fraud still could be committed.
Reporters were told that the 500 observers visited roughly 2,200 of the country’s 11,699 polling stations.
As for ballot-box tampering, “I don’t think even Mr Houdini could get in and out of those boxes without being detected,” Linder said.
He added that he was confident all ballots had been counted on Monday, and that the JIOG wasn’t being premature in making its statement. He said that JIOG’s assessment was independent from NEC’s handling of the results.
Linder said that a consolidated statement would be made later, probably Wednesday, when all observers have been debriefed and their full reports analyzed.
He declined to say what were the most serious irregularities observed. On Friday, two days before the election, the JIOG conveyed a list of concerns, including intimidation and ballot secrecy.
At stake in judging the polls “free and fair” is Cambodia’s acceptance into Asean. But Linder denied JIOG took that fate into consideration.
Such consequences, he said, could “very well be the case, but our job is to make independent assessments as independent observers.”
(Additional reporting by Chris Decherd)