NEC Head Referees Political Football Match

If politics can be compared to a game, then elections are a football match and Cambodia’s 2003 general election is shaping up to be a World Cup final, says Im Sousdey, who is already the unpopular top referee for next year’s political showdown.

As the new chairman of Cambo­dia’s vote arbitration body—the National Election Committee—Im Sousdey comes to his new job under a cloud of criticism.

He previously held the post of NEC secretary-general, the second top spot in an institution that vote monitors, foreign diplomats and average people said was guilty of rubber stamping decisions that favored Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling CPP in previous elections.

When the National Assembly was putting its support last month behind the five new NEC officials, the opposition Sam Rainsy Party led 500 protesters in the streets of Phnom Penh waving placards that read “Donors Open Your Eyes,” and “We Don’t Accept CPP-Con­trolled NEC.”

Im Sousdey admits that the new NEC team was hand-picked by the Interior Ministry.

But he insists that he’s his own man and critics should wait until the final whistle is blown in the July 2003 poll before they judge the election body’s performance.

“I feel that I am like the referee on a football pitch who can’t make everyone happy at the same time,” said the 52-year-old fluent French speaker—whose beige chino-style trousers and blue tennis top contrasts sharply with his reputation as a longtime communist party stalwart and loyal CPP supporter.

He was once a leading figure in the CPP Youth Association.

In sports and politics alike,   supporters just want their side to win, says Im Sousdey.

“When one side claps the other side shouts…. Fans don’t want to know the rules,” he said.

But it’s not the rules, but the way the game has been played that has given the NEC a battering from accusations of CPP-bias that started before the last Cambodian general election in 1998.

Though scoring merit points for conducting a technically competent election, the NEC was accused by independent election monitors of failing to undertake serious investigations into claims of intimidation and vote buying.

Leading up to February’s commune council elections, the NEC was slammed for—among other things—its decision to ban the airing of voter information roundtable discussion on TV and radio.

Diplomats blasted the NEC ban as a further blow to Cambodia’s trundling experiment with democracy.

UN human rights envoy to Cambodia Peter Leuprecht said in his latest General Assembly report that the NEC failed during the commune elections to investigate violations of the electoral law and impeded equitable access to the broadcast media.

“Freedom of expression, and the requirement for voters to be informed, should not be so glibly dismissed,” Leuprecht said, referring to a conversation with a NEC official who said the broadcast ban was imposed to stop fighting resulting from political discussions.

Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said the NEC has time to prove critics wrong, but that the selection was the first crooked step in the election process.

“The first element they start [the 2003 election process with] is already not transparent,” Koul Panha said.

Whether the individual NEC members are neutral or not, much of the public will be hard pressed to believe it, said Kek Galabru, chair of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia.

“At the beginning they have been chosen by the Ministry of Interior, so people will not have confidence in them,” Kek Galabru said.

Interior Ministry-appointed “dignitaries” or not, Im Sousdey points to what he says are positive aspects of the new NEC.

With an NEC that has been pared down from a cumbersome 11 members to a trim five, Im Sousdey said he now has more control and—though declining to comment on his four deputies—he is blunt about his expected performance in the future and his limitations in the past.

“We haven’t met yet, but they understand the work ahead,” Im Sousdey said.

“There is one path to follow. We must follow that path or do away with us,” he said.

The other Interior Ministry-appointees includes Nge Chhay Lieng, deputy chief of cabinet for the Interior Ministry and close aide to Funcinpec co-Minister of Interior You Hockry; Mean Sati, president of the Battambang Provincial Election Committee; and female members Koy Vet, executive director of the Khmer Women’s Media Center and Sin Chum Bo, an unidentified NGO worker.

“I know clearly myself, that I am not a tool for any party,” said Koy Vet, one of two women who are the first women to serve on the NEC.

Indicating some level of independence from the government line, Im Sousdey admitted people were killed for political reasons during the commune elections.

“There were some political killings. But, some people say all the killings were political,” Im Sousdey said.

The July 2003 general election is shaping up to be a potential political bruiser, as rumors circulate of a possible mass defection from the royalist party to the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.

Defending the NEC’s role in election violence, Im Sousdey said it was his job to compile reports on such incidents, but it was the work of the Interior Ministry to investigate, decide on a motive and catch culprits.

Im Sousdey said time alone will now test the NEC.

“You can evaluate after, based on our procedure,” he said.

 

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