Monitors See Calm on Eve Of Campaigns

Banners unfurled, political parties will begin canvassing the country today amid an election atmosphere that monitors are cautiously calling stable.

Despite reports of numerous electoral law transgressions, a Thai­­land-based NGO on Tuesday assessed the climate as “calm.”

“Observers noticed a significant decrease of violence compared with past elections. The overall situation…is generally calm,” stated a report by the Asian Network for Free Elections, or Anfrel.

Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, agreed that the country had so far seen less violence than in previous elections, but he warned that silence could be a result of effective repression.

Several political groups and NGOs have been denied permission to protest since the Jan 29 anti-Thai riots, and people might now be skittish about speaking openly, Koul Panha said.

“The environment, especially in the city, is that maybe people will be afraid to organize political gatherings,” he said.

Still, spokesmen for the CPP, Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party all predicted rallies of tens of thousands of supporters as they launch their official campaigns today.

Funcinpec President Prince Norodom Ranariddh will greet between 30,000 and 40,000 supporters in Kompong Cham town, where he stands as first candidate, said Funcinpec Deputy Secretary-General Serey Kosal.

More than 30,000 party members are expected to march with Sam Rainsy from the National Assembly to Wat Phnom today, Sam Rainsy Party Secretary-General Eng Chhay Eang said. Sam Rainsy will then lead an afternoon march in Kandal province, he said.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, who for several weeks has attended official inauguration ceremonies daily in the provinces, with his speeches broadcast nationally, will address at least 10,000 prominent party supporters at the CPP’s headquarters in Phnom Penh today, said Suong Sambath of the party’s central committee.

According to party members, the prime minister—who this week traveled to Banteay Meanchey, Stung Treng, Takeo and Kompong Speu provinces—will cut down on his public appearances.

“The prime minister won’t conduct an election campaign during the campaign [period], because he is afraid to have verbal conflict with other political parties,” said Khieu Kanharith, CPP spokesman and secretary of state for the Ministry of Information.

Speaking at a bridge inauguration in Kompong Speu on Wednesday, Hun Sen said, “I won’t take the time to inaugurate any achievements, because I will not run the campaign. I will do only the government works and control the situation because I should keep the political stability.”

In an apparent effort to keep stability, Hun Sen on Monday issued a public statement calling on local authorities to be neutral during the campaign period.

“All armed forces and authorities in all levels, including commune councilors and village chiefs, have to be independent and neutral to do their duties,” he said.

Meddling by village chiefs has drawn consistent criticism from monitoring groups.

This week’s Anfrel report claimed that “in many cases, village chiefs have in fact become political agents and use their status to not only influence people but also intimidate and harass the potential opposition voter.”

Though the National Election Committee has not punished any local authorities for intimidation, its president, Im Suosdey, on Wednesday asked village chiefs to abide by election laws in the coming month.

“I would like to appeal to all village chiefs…. They have to be neutral and avoid using their powers to influence voters. Because the village chiefs are close with the voters, they have to be a good example for the voters to respect the law,” Im Suosdey said at a press conference.

A Cambodian Committee for Human Rights report released Wednesday chided the NEC for not taking measures to enforce the election law against reports of intimidation.

The report, released Wednesday, said the National Election Committee had not resolved any of the 292 complaints it has received since Jan 6. Of those complaints, 82 percent were filed by opposition parties.

CCHR reported 96 cases of suspected intimidation, while the ministry reported 18.

The Ministry of Interior has said that investigations revealed none of 16 recent killings were tied to politics. CCHR has record of 10 killings it says were probably political.

Still, most monitoring groups have praised the relatively few cases of violence in the run-up to the elections, an improvement that NEC officials partially credit to stiffer, more clear electoral laws.

On Tuesday the NEC issued a joint directive with the Ministry of Interior setting guidelines for police and military personnel during the election campaign period and Election Day.

Among the regulations are a ban on wearing uniforms inside polling stations and a mandated 40-meter radius around polling stations where no guard or voter can enter with a weapon. Guards carrying rifles are required to stand at least 100 meters from the polling station, the directive states.

(Additional reporting by Nhem Chea Bunly)

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