The country’s election authority has informally begun to look into allegations that a controversial CPP membership drive amounts to intimidation, while party officials continued to vehemently defend the campaign.
“We have begun to review the issue,” one National Election Committee member said Sunday.
However, election authorities reported that no formal complaint has been filed with the 11-member NEC, the body in charge of investigating election-related wrongdoing.
“If the National Election Committee receives a written complaint, then it will tackle the issue,” said Prum Nhien Vichit, media officer for the NEC and the CPP representative on the panel.
But the first NEC official, who asked not to be named, explained that a complaint may make all the difference in the board’s ability to investigate a case.
“The process [of investigation] might be easier for us to initiate if someone complains and we can look into the issue more directly,” the official said. He said launching an NEC investigation without a formal complaint would be like “looking for a needle in a haystack.”
Under the campaign, commune and village leaders have been asking potential voters to affix their thumbprints to documents pledging their loyalty to the party. In exchange, voters often receive gifts, including kramas, food and riel.
Villagers confronted with the request for a thumbprint have reported feeling threatened.
Thomas Hammarberg, the UN secretary-general’s special representative for human rights in Cambodia, brought up the topic in a May 10 meeting with Second Prime Minister Hun Sen.
“The impression he gave us was that he was not in favor of the campaign,” Hammarberg said at a Wednesday press conference, where he criticized the campaign. “But I wasn’t quite clear on what initiative he wants to undertake.”
Om Yentieng, a senior adviser to Hun Sen who was present at the meeting with Hammarberg, said Thursday that no order by the CPP vice president had been given to end the campaign.
And CPP party members, including the second prime minister, have been unapologetic about the membership drive and the controversy it has sparked.
A Sunday statement from the “CPP office spokesman” broadcast on the privately owned Apsara radio demanded a retraction for “this exaggerated, twisted and unreasonable news [reported] by some of the media….We demand those who have exaggerated about the CPP to run a correction and give justice to the CPP.”
Svay Sitha, a political adviser to the government and a CPP member, described the campaign as a check of party membership to avoid another embarrassing election loss. The CPP’s leadership in 1993 believed they had 3 million members, but received only 1.5 million votes, he said.
“And now, according to the report from the low level, the figure is around 3 million,” Svay Sitha explained. “The top levels want to check to see if this report is accurate.”
Hun Sen, in speeches over the two days following Hammarberg’s press conference, complained that human rights workers unfairly single out the CPP for wrongdoing.
The second prime minister explained that the thumbprints were needed to review the numbers of its members and to serve as receipts for gifts of monosodium glutamate given to party members.
The NEC member who asked not to be named said that, based on newspapers and human rights reports, the thumbprint campaign appears to be a clear case of voter intimidation. But such sources of information are not enough for the body to investigate.
“We cannot just have a hearing if all of the information is hearsay,” the officer said.
While the source said only one person would need to file a complaint for the election board to hold a hearing, board members and watchdogs agreed that one individual’s allegations of intimidation may not be enough to initiate a thorough investigation into the thumbprint campaign.
“It requires sufficient evidence to prove [intimidation] before the NEC would be able to do something,” said the NEC’s Prum Nhien Vichit.
Thun Saray, spokesman for the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said his provincial staff was researching reports of intimidation stemming from the CPP campaign and could have a report by the end of the month.
“I think we need to have a lot of proof before we complain [to the NEC],” he said. “Perhaps by the end of the month we will have enough proof.”
(Additional reporting by Khuy Sokhoeun)