As the four political parties vying for seats in the Senate officially kicked off their election campaigns on Saturday, the National Election Committee appeared to be scrambling to find impartial observers.
Some of the country’s prominent NGOs reaffirmed that they would not monitor the election, saying that the Jan 22 vote—which will poll only the 11,261 commune councilors and 123 parliamentarians—did not represent real democracy.
“We sent out a statement—Nicfec, Comfrel and several other NGOs—to inform that we will not participate in the Senate election. This election, we can calculate the share of the political parties [in advance],” said Hang Puthea, director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free Elections in Cambodia, speaking of a joint statement with the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.
NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha said on Sunday that 58 observers, including 55 from local NGO Youth Council of Cambodia and the little-known Democratic Service Organization, had been approved by the NEC.
But YCC Program Coordinator Mak Sarath said by telephone on Sunday that YCC had refused to provide observers for the election.
“We decided not to observe because they don’t allow the people to vote,” he explained. “They can know the results before the election, because the commune council members are from three parties and the candidates are from the same three parties.”
Democratic Service Organization, which provides literacy and training in Banteay Meanchey province, plans to send only three observers to monitor the elections, said organization administrator Nou Kan Vanny.
NEC spokesman Leng Sochea noted that five other NGOs were being considered for participation, including the Center for Social Development and the National Democratic Institute.
However, CSD Managing Director Heav Veasna and NDI Technical Adviser Darikul Ghani both said their organizations would not be sending observers.
Criticisms and technical difficulties did not stop the coalition ruling parties from moving early in the official campaign period to rally supporters.
Tep Nytha said that CPP and Funcinpec had already begun campaigning, noting that CPP had held province-wide meetings of its commune councils, while Funcinpec had held district and commune-wide meetings.
The parties have previously pledged to spend little on the campaign, but Funcinpec, the CPP, the Sam Rainsy Party and the Khmer Democratic Party, which is also running, have all produced advertisements and brochures, and have participated in NEC-coordinated roundtable discussions to air on state-run television and radio, Tep Nytha said.
But Funcinpec lawmaker Monh Saphan said the heart of his party’s campaign would be in one-on-one meetings with voters.
“We don’t campaign much. Candidates just go down and introduce themselves,” he said, adding that the candidates would spend their own money to do so.
Sam Rainsy Party Senator Chao Phally said the opposition—which had mentioned the possibility of boycotting Senate elections in the past—is now looking to capitalize on the 20-day campaign season to publicize the party’s message.
“We run to keep our voice, win or lose,” he said.
But Hang Puthea said that this election, no matter what the outcome, is a poor substitute for genuine democracy.
“NGOs would like to allow independent candidates to join the Senate election, but the law does not allow about this,” he said. “Neutral persons can do something outside political parties, while parties do something only for power.”