The National Election Committee surprised skeptics when it overcame near impossible deadlines, inexperience and logistical challenges to produce an election on schedule.
The new electoral body surprised skeptics when it threw out suspect observer groups just prior to the July 26 polls.
And the CPP-stacked panel surprised skeptics when international and local observers could offer up only scattered irregularities from polling day.
But where the NEC’s image darkens, critics agree, is in its perceived inability to openly deal with serious complaints such as voter intimidation, ballot counting and a change in the formula to allocate National Assembly seats.
Perhaps emblematic of its failure to engender a final vote of confidence, the NEC on Tuesday threw up its hands and declared “time is up” after completing only eight of 10 planned commune recounts. Now the NEC has essentially concluded its work for this election year, unless called back into service by the Constitutional Council.
Several NEC officials on Tuesday and Wednesday said they welcomed constructive criticism to help the group avoid the same mistakes in upcoming elections.
A Western diplomat was most kind Wednesday evening, when he said only sour grapes by some in the international community are preventing the Cambodian-organized elections from being recognized as better than the UN-brokered elections of 1993.
“It was technically better [than in 1993],” he said. “There was no chance, despite what others may think, of possible fraud.”
“Sure there were irregularities, but these irregularities were not the type that could change the vote of the people.”
Peter Schier, country representative of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, a democracy-building group, had a similar assessment— with one big qualification.
“In the short time they had, what they accomplished was simply incredible,” Schier said Wednesday. He said he was impressed by local election officials on polling and counting day.
“Unfortunately, this discussion about the formula darkens a bit the image of the NEC,” Schier said. “It was a blatant mistake. The image is tainted and that’s a pity somehow.”
Rights workers and observers like the US International Republican Institute added to the list of tainted items the lack of serious investigation into voter intimidation and possible ballot fraud.
“On some points, they performed great,” a rights worker said Wednesday of the NEC. “On logistical, technical issues, no one believed they could do it. But the other side of the story is the substantive issues that they failed to respond to adequately….To be credible they should have investigated [those points]. It’s very clear nothing has been done.”
The IRI called Wednesday for a special panel to investigate election complaints and allegations of post-election intimidation.
Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, said Wednesday that he would give the NEC an overall rating of “above average.”
“They did a good job considering the time and their little expertise,” he said.
But he said to be truly effective, the NEC should have exerted itself more forcefully and acted more promptly “when there were signs of trouble.”
For instance, he said, the NEC should have restrained all parties from publishing the election “results” in advance of the NEC’s own preliminary results.
Almost all agree that the high point was election morning when Cambodians could be seen lining up enthusiastically to vote.
But barely 30 hours after the polls closed, the CPP declared a huge victory. And, the next day, Prince Norodom Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy cried foul.
For many, a joyous moment of exercising democracy had suddenly turned into a landslide marred by allegations of fraud.
“The NEC should have warned the CPP that ‘you’re not in charge,’” Lao Mong Hay said.
Similarly, he said, Sam Rainsy and Prince Norodom Ranariddh “should have been warned that ‘we cannot solve complaints in the streets.’ If the NEC had acted promptly in that way, that could have cooled” the emotions.
Lao Mong Hay said the NEC should have been a referee who warns boxers before a fight not to punch below the belt. But instead of referee, the NEC became one of the boxers, adopting a confrontational approach, he said, in dealing with the ballot recounts and seat formula change.
NEC Vice Chairman Kassie Neou apparently quit his job on the fraud commission because he believed his colleagues were stalling in investigating complaints. He couldn’t be reached for comment Wednesday.
Lao Mong Hay is one of many who think the NEC should have agreed to random ballot recounts and should have opened its books to show if there were minutes approving the seat formula change. Both of those actions, he said, would have gone a long way toward clearing suspicions.
But an Asian diplomat said Wednesday he saw the NEC as wanting to stall in resolving the most substantive complaints until its electoral calendar was up. The NEC on Tuesday dismissed the remaining 304 complaints as lacking merit.
“‘Time is up….Now you have to go to the Constitutional Council.’ On one hand, it is a clever strategy. On the other, it’s transparent,” the Asian diplomat said.
For their part, two NEC officials contacted Wednesday said they were satisfied that their work was based on independence and neutrality.
NEC Treasurer Chhay Kim, who has admitted to suggesting the second formula, and Prum Nhien Vichit both declared that the election was smoother than many in other parts of Asia.
“Less than 1 percent of the technical points we have not achieved,” said Chhay Kim.
“This election was free, fair, credible and, most importantly, peaceful according to international standards,” said Prum Nhien Vichit. “I may be called a mad man, but my pride is so great. I am 100 percent proud.”
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara, Chris Seper and Chris Decherd)