Vote buying and voter intimidation continue to mar the political landscape in the run-up to the July general elections but could be corrected in time to ensure free and fair elections if the government acts now, a new report says.
Though fewer political crimes have been reported so far compared to past elections, there exists widespread fear among voters that support for a party other than the ruling CPP carries risks, according to a report from the International Republican Institute, a US-based NGO that works to build democracy.
“Voters have received threats from village chiefs and local authorities that retaining their jobs or their land is linked to their support for the CPP,” the report says.
Released Monday, the report stems from an investigation of the political climate led by Democratic Action Party of Malaysia parliamentarian Theresa Kok, former US State Department official Mike Mitchell and IRI Asia Regional Program Director Daniel Calingaert.
“Given pervasive restrictions on political expression in Cambodia, IRI is seriously concerned about the credibility of the electoral process,” the report concludes.
National Election Committee Secretary-General Tep Nitha told the Cambodia Daily that the IRI report wrongfully implicates the NEC and said Cambodians would not be intimidated to vote for one party or another.
“This is their right; they can say what they want, but the NEC members were chosen according to the electoral law and accepted by the National Assembly,” Tep Nitha said.
“Cambodian people, right now they understand about the democratic process. They don’t allow someone to threaten them to vote for their parties,” he said.
But among the IRI’s findings is an institutional problem likely to hinder free elections: The Ministry of Interior has been reluctant to issue guidelines to commune councils for the selection of new village chiefs.
The delay has made it impossible for commune councils elected more than a year ago to replace chiefs who were chosen years ago for their allegiance to the ruling CPP and who, as a political force on their own, make up a fundamental part of the ruling party’s control of local politics, the IRI report says.
The opposition party has filed a complaint over the village-chief problem, but so far nothing has changed, said opposition parliamentarian Son Chhay.
“We all know that the system of governing the country is still very much the same as of the previous communist system, where the village chiefs are appointed by the party and have to be working as the ear and eyes of the ruling party,” Son Chhay said.
Son Chhay said Prime Minister Hun Sen responded to an opposition party complaint filed in August to say the delay was necessary three reasons: For the government to study how the commune councils will function given their new powers under the new commune council law, how the new village chiefs will carry out programs begun by their predecessors and how the general population feels about the new village chiefs.
An official at the Ministry of Interior’s Department of Local Administration said Monday he did not know when the ministry would issue orders to select new village chiefs.
Aside from the problem with the village chiefs, the elections will be further hindered by a broadcast media mostly aligned with the ruling party and an NEC chosen largely by the ruling party without the involvement of the opposition party or civil society, the IRI report says.
To ensure fair elections, the Ministry of Interior should acknowledge political crimes when they happen and aggressively investigate them, IRI officials recommended. The government should also enforce laws to prevent vote-buying, release victims of arbitrary arrest and order local and provincial officials to allow all political parties to hold public meetings.
Restrictions on media that are not aligned with the CPP should be lifted and the NEC should take steps to nullify its connections to the ruling party, the report added.