On July 29, 2013, the day after a nationwide vote that critics said was riddled with flaws, two groups of international poll watchers issued a statement hailing the election as a “triumph of popular will.”
“That the elections were free, fair and transparent, and, above all, peaceful, non-violent and smooth bear testimony to the fact that Cambodian democracy has not only matured, but come of age politically,” said a statement by the International Conference of Asian Political Parties (ICAPP) and the Centrist Asia Pacific Democrats International (CAPDI).
The rubber stamp was quickly posted to the website of the National Election Committee (NEC) and carried across government-affiliated media.
The statement didn’t mention that late deputy prime minister and CPP stalwart Sok An was vice chairman of the ICAPP’s standing committee, or that the ruling party had footed the bill for ICAPP monitors, according to an email the group sent out before the election.
The two organizations were in fact “shadow” election observation groups that are increasingly being used by authoritarian governments to cast a veneer of legitimacy on votes, according to a new paper by political scholars Maria Debre of the Berlin Graduate School of Transnational Studies and Lee Morgenbesser of Griffith University in Brisbane, Australia.
The research was published on Monday in the journal Contemporary Politics.
Groups like ICAPP “not only validate…flawed elections, but subvert the critical assessments of professional observation groups” from Western countries with more critical assessments, the authors write.
Many of the Western monitors sat out the 2013 vote after a heavy but seemingly futile presence in past mandates, with the E.U. saying that the government hadn’t taken its recommendations into account after the 2008 vote and the U.S. sending only a handful of “informal observers.”
In their absence, Ms. Debre and Mr. Morgenbesser contend, ICAPP took a lax approach to the process, with monitors from countries like Azerbaijan, Indonesia and China sometimes arriving just a day before the vote—hardly enough time to gauge the political climate, according to the authors.
Moreover, the visits appeared to be funded by the ruling party, with an internal email from the group’s secretary-general promising monitors that “expenses for hotel accommodation, local transportation and meals will be covered by the CPP.”
With a schedule packed full of government-hosted dinners, tours of Phnom Penh landmarks and coffee breaks—alongside visits to three polling sites seemingly preselected by the NEC—“it seems that they spent twice as much time eating food and drinking coffee as they did actually observing the election,” the academics wrote.
By deploying shadow election monitors, the Cambodian government joined the likes of Zimbabwe, Egypt and an increasing number of other autocratic regimes who have “sought to gain democratic-procedural legitimation via flawed elections,” the authors write.
Ra Su-jin, assistant to the secretary-general of ICAPP, defended the credibility of the organization’s 2013 visit in an email on Wednesday, saying that the group was invited by the NEC on a trip that included “meeting with leaders of various political parties including the [Cambodian] National Rescue Party, observation of various polling stations and monitoring vote counting process.”
She did not respond to questions about funding for the visit.
The other monitoring group, CAPDI, has seemingly no internet presence and could not be reached for comment.
NEC spokesman Hang Puthea, who ran an independent election NGO before becoming a member of the state election body in 2015, brushed off criticism of the 2013 observers’ alleged close relationship to the CPP, saying he would welcome their return and casting doubt on Western elections.
“The NEC is reforming. We don’t care about political affiliations,” he said.
“Actually, there are no perfect elections, even in developed countries like the U.S.—they still have this or that issue.”
(Additional reporting by Ben Sokhean)