The National Election Committee’s (NEC) failure to implement a number of recent recommendations to improve the country’s electoral process means it is unlikely the national elections in July will be entirely free and fair, independent election monitoring groups said Sunday.
“Civil society is deeply disappointed and concerned about the inconsistency of the NEC in implementing the existing [election] law, free and fair election principles and the protection of suffrage of the electorates,” the groups said.
The key issues that continue to stifle free and fair elections in the country, according to the statement, include the failure to create a transparent and multiparty body to select NEC officials, poor monitoring at polling offices, lack of transparency in campaign spending and unchecked control of commune chiefs in issuing voter IDs.
The statement was signed by the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel), the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, the People’s Center for Development and Peace, the Cambodia Defenders Project and the Community Legal Education Center.
On the issue of campaign spending, the Law on Election of Members of the National Assembly only obliges political parties to disclose incomes and expenditures when deemed “necessary” by the NEC, allowing for selective application that is undermining implementation of the law in any meaningful way, the groups said.
Koul Panha, executive director of Comfrel, said Sunday that the ruling CPP has remained steadfast in its refusal to pass election finance reform.
“Every political party is happy to disclose their campaign finances, including expenses, except for the CPP. We suggest that the NEC puts some particular provisions in order to regulate party campaigns,” he said.
NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha said that the NEC would only demand access to financial information if a political party comes to them with a budgetary dispute, adding that the only party that has consistently sent its financial records to the NEC is the CPP.
“If the [political] parties want to have their financial statements publicized, they can send them to Comfrel,” Mr. Nytha said.
The civil society statement also notes a number of inconsistencies with the issuing of information certificates for election (ICEs), the documentation needed to vote in the upcoming national elections on July 28, as well as the undue authority that has been granted to commune chiefs in managing voter rolls.
By extending the deadline for receiving ICEs from June 26 until the day before elections on July 27, the NEC has flouted the election law and given commune chiefs—the vast majority of whom are members of the ruling CPP—the ability to intimidate their constituents during campaign season, Mr. Panha said.
By allowing only one day between the close of registration and the opening of polls, the NEC has also hindered the ability of election monitors to gauge the authenticity of voter registration, he added.
Mr. Nytha, however, insisted that commune chiefs could be trusted to impartially monitor the voter list, and rejected the idea that voters would be susceptible to intimidation during the month of campaigning leading up to elections.
“The words from the commune chiefs will not affect their thinking. People can just vote freely for the party they like,” he said.
The government is also falling short in its implementation of the existing election laws and the reform recommendations that it has accepted, Mr. Panha said. Rules prohibiting civil servants, judicial staff, and members of the military and police from campaigning for political parties, along with rules against posting political plaques and campaign material on state buildings, are not being widely enforced, he said.
“There are still posters all over government buildings,” he said.
Mr. Nytha, however, said that political parties and private citizens had only to report such offenses to the NEC, who would investigate each case and take action if rules are being broken.
The most important step the NEC could take in order to legitimize July’s elections, Mr. Panha said, is making itself a more politically representative body.
By opening positions on the NEC—whose office is located inside the Interior Ministry—to members of non-ruling parties and bringing transparency to the selection of its officers, the NEC would preempt many of the complaints coming from election observers over its long-perceived lack of neutrality, Mr. Panha said.
“It is important that the NEC becomes stronger and more independent,” he said. “If political parties feel the appointments [to the NEC] are OK, and they are not complaining, they will be careful not to reject election results.”
In a report issued last week, Comfrel predicted that, due to the ruling CPP’s increasing consolidation of power, July’s national elections would be the least free in 20 years. And, last year, U.N. human rights envoy to Cambodia Surya Subedi noted “major flaws” in the administration of elections, saying that the fact the NEC was dominated by ruling party members had hurt its credibility.