Upon officially taking the helm of the country’s revamped National Election Committee (NEC) on Monday, Sik Bunhok promised to follow in the footsteps of the outgoing committee members, most of whom were widely lambasted as tools of the ruling CPP.
Since the government created the NEC 17 years ago and stacked it with old CPP hands, opposition parties, rights groups and election monitors have regularly accused the committee of running the country’s elections in the ruling party’s favor.
Far from getting better, those groups deemed 2013’s national poll—which returned the CPP to power for the fourth consecutive time—the worst in 20 years, run with a deeply flawed voter list and rife with irregularities that were dismissed without thorough investigation.
The opposition CNRP, which initially claimed victory, eventually accepted the results after the CPP agreed to a raft of reforms, including a new NEC that would include four selections from each of the two parties and a ninth member chosen by consensus.
Royal Palace Minister Kong Sam Ol officially handed power over to the new members at a ceremony at the NEC’s headquarters Monday.
Mr. Bunhok, a former lawmaker for the CPP who will serve as the body’s chairman, began in his new role by praising his predecessors.
“We the leaders of the new NEC, who will continue this work, would like to promise that we will continue to implement the good example of [their] excellencies …who were mature election organizers,” he said.
“We commit to try our utmost to implement our roles and duties with independence, neutrality, honesty and transparency, aiming to guarantee the elections will be conducted freely, fairly and with justice.”
Outgoing NEC president Im Suosdey, meanwhile, ended his controversial tenure by claiming that the committee under his leadership was admired around the world, and that election officials from as far afield as Nepal and Iraq had come to Cambodia for lessons.
Contacted afterward by phone, the NEC’s outgoing secretary-general, Tep Nytha, defended the committee’s work and refused to concede that Monday’s turnover had anything to do with its past performance.
“Elections can’t be 100 percent good in any country. We reformed and improved the elections in Cambodia from one election to the next,” he said. “No matter how good the performance of the committee was, there had to be a change [in membership] after every mandate.”
In the weeks leading up to Monday’s handover, the two parties settled on Hang Puthea, head of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, as the committee’s neutral member. Mr. Puthea was among the leading critics of the 2013 vote, including the old NEC’s work.
Contacted after Monday’s ceremony, he said the voter list the NEC used and approved was the election’s main flaw.
Three separate audits of the list before the vote, including one commissioned by the government, concluded that there were problems with hundreds of thousands of the names, including many that could not be traced back to a real person. Hundreds of thousands of voters were also found to have been left off the role unfairly.
Despite the overwhelming evidence of major flaws, the NEC refused to revise the list. The committee ended up calling the election for the CPP by less than 300,000 votes and later rejected every one of the CNRP’s challenges.
“The voter list was the worst point,” Mr. Puthea said Monday. “There were exaggerations and ghost lists. There were lists with incorrect spellings. This affected the results strongly.
“We will organize a new voter list,” he said. “If voter registration is not good, the [election] results will not be good, either.”