Leading opposition politicians on Tuesday called for the resignation of the nation’s highest election official, saying “he is no longer trustworthy as a widely accepted referee in the ongoing electoral process.”
However, Chheng Phon, who was voted to the post Jan 26 by a 70-15 vote in the National Assembly, rebutted the attacks against him Tuesday, saying he would not resign unless ordered to do so by parliament.
In a statement released Tuesday, outspoken politician Sam Rainsy, parliamentarian Kem Sokha and Secretary of State for Women’s Affairs Keat Sukun assailed the appearance of Chheng Phon’s signature on a secret deal authorizing a private company to run elections as having undermined his credibility.
“A most disturbing revelation is the fact that National Election Committee President Chheng Phon also signed the secret and controversial contract,” the statement reads. “By doing so, Mr Chheng Phon sided with Second Prime Minister Hun Sen in trying to pervert the electoral process for partisan reasons and to make the next elections anything except free, fair and credible.”
Government officials have confirmed that the two prime ministers signed a deal earlier this month with Ciccone Calcografica SA, an Argentinean company, and Malam Systems Ltd, an Israeli company, as an alternative way to organize elections scheduled for July if substantial foreign aid remains absent.
The deal was done discreetly, without the knowledge of Interior co-Minister Sar Kheng, whose ministry has been coordinating election preparations for several years.
Foreign countries have offered about $14 million of at least $26 million needed to stage elections, although substantial conditions for free and fair elections have been placed on the funds.
“The deal is that the private companies say how many seats are there in the country? How many seats do you want to get? How many seats does the government want to get? How many seats will you allow the opposition?” Rainsy asked rhetorically at a press conference Tuesday.
Much criticism has followed the appointment of the 11-member board charged with organizing and overseeing elections.
Allegations of CPP involvement in the nomination of the NGO representative to the election committee and disagreements over political party representatives by internal party factions dogged the body’s confirmation.
Sam Rainsy said some politicians, including deposed first prime minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh, will push for the body’s dissolution after a petition for Chheng Phon’s removal is submitted to the National Assembly. “Chheng Pong cannot decently remain in his position. He must resign and then the whole NEC will be dissolved.”
Chheng Phon insisted he had done nothing wrong and vowed not to leave the post voluntarily. “Why should I resign? I haven’t committed any fault.”
He said the government signing a deal with Ciccone is the same as signing a deal with foreign countries for election aid.
“Error or not, fault or not, the question is, will we have an election?” he pointed out, warning that to fail to have an election would result in a civil war.
While a senior government adviser said last week that having the government pay Ciccone would constitute a violation of the NEC’s independence, Chheng Phon said payment would come from government coffers.
Funds had not been allocated to the NEC budget when the contract was signed, Chheng Phon said. Article 21 of the contract calls for 25 percent of up to $26 million to be paid to Ciccone upon inking the deal. However, Cheng Phon said Tuesday he was uncertain whether any funds had been paid to the two companies.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara and Catherine Philp)