In the latest twist in the election observer controversy, National Election Committee officials admitted Wednesday that they had failed to substantially cut the large number of national observers for Sunday’s elections.
“We estimate that…national observers could be 50,000 at the highest,” NEC Secretary-General Im Suorsdei said.
But officials also expressed hope that internationally accredited observers would not be crowded out of polling stations Sunday.
The announcement that 38,908 yellow national observer cards had already been distributed came a day after NEC officials said they hoped the number of observers might be kept to as few as 13,000 on polling day.
But by Wednesday, the NEC admitted that new measures taken to limit the numbers had not worked because provincial election officials had already distributed so many observer cards.
“There’s nothing we can do. Basically we are hoping these organizations will vanish…and will not disrupt the elections. We are just playing it by ear,” said NEC member Tip Jahnvibol.
The international community, including the Joint International Observer Group, has expressed grave concern that the unexpected number of observers would crowd out the three monitoring groups that have received international accreditation and funding. The groups are the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel), the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Coffel) and the Neutral and Independent Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Nicfec).
On Wednesday, the head of the Philippine observers’ delegation, Jose Concepcion Jr, said he had told NEC Vice Chairman Kassie Neou that the credibility of the elections would be in jeopardy if established observer groups were not allowed to observe the entire electoral process.
“It is a must that there be one of those—I don’t say legitimate, but internationally accredited—observers there in the long run,” said Concepcion, the chairman of the respected Philippine election watchdog the National Citizens’ Movement for Free Elections.
Tip Jahnvibol said Wednesday the NEC would instruct polling stations to facilitate access for Comfrel, Coffel and Nicfec observers “verbally, not officially.”
“We don’t think it is appropriate for the NEC to favor one group or another…because we already approved them all,” he said.
The NEC was surprised when 13 NGOs—some with suspected links to the ruling party and the military, according to one NEC member—registered more than 60,000 names as national observers. Most had previously believed the main observer groups would have trouble getting enough people to cover all 11,699 polling places.
Im Suorsdei acknowledged that the surplus observers are a problem. “We hadn’t thought of this problem arising. Since this problem arose, we have been working hard to solve it.”
He added that an NEC investigation indicates most of the groups were selling observer cards with promises of high-paying jobs in the election rather than pursuing a political agenda.
“It is mainly an economic rather than a political problem,” he said.