Ensuring comprehensive voter registration, equal access to the media and lifting the ban on Buddhist monks voting in next July’s general election topped concerns during a meeting of 19 political parties and the National Election Committee on Tuesday.
Five of the most vocal parties made it known that the upcoming election process is likely to be compromised by low voter registration, the political influence bought by pre-election gifts, larger parties dominating television and radio air time and the edicts of powerful religious patriarchs.
The list of grievances raised mostly by the election’s smaller parties followed the release Monday night of the NEC’s schedule for the 2003 parliamentary elections. The ruling CPP asked no questions.
A timetable of 34 dates, marking each step in the election process, commences Dec 21 and continues until Sept 7 next year, when Cambodia’s election winner and new government will be announced.
But on Tuesday, the minds of 19 party representatives were focused on letting the NEC know the hurdles they see blocking a fair election process.
“What can the NEC do to ensure there is justice during the campaign?” Sam Sokhorn, New Society Party representative, asked during the meeting.
Sam Sokhorn said political campaigning for the election is not officially sanctioned until one month before the July 27, 2003, ballot day, even though Prime Minister Hun Sen told villagers recently that if he is re-elected, he will construct roads in rural areas.
Most vocal among the parties, Sam Rainsy Party Senator Ou Bunlong said the decision to retain the voter registration list from the commune elections would confuse voters because they are used to registering each time for an election.
Without a new identity card for the elections, people cannot be sure their names will be on the voter list, he said.
Ou Bunlong also asked the NEC to ensure equal distribution of broadcast media air time for all parties contending the election.
Either the NEC should pay for broadcast time for parties that cannot afford it or, in the interests of fairness, ban all political party messages from the TV and radio airwaves, Ou Bunlong said.
“Don’t let other political parties buy time because there will be injustice. Some parties have money while others have nothing,” he said.
NEC President Im Sousdey agreed that either equal media access or no access at all should be enforced. But the possibility of the NEC buying private air time for parties would depend on funding, he said.
As with previous elections, the 2003 ballot is gearing up to be a political bruiser.
The CPP wing of the coalition government is already under attack, with the royalist Funcinpec venting unprecedented pre-election criticism of its senior government partner.
Last week Prime Minister Hun Sen talked about a continued coalition after 2003 with the royalist party, while Funcinpec leader Prince Norodom Ranariddh made it clear later in the week that he was eyeing an election win and a future government of his own.
Hun Sen has been surprisingly quiet about the rumblings of dissent from his government junior partner.
The premier’s silence has led some Funcinpec members and political observers to speculate that the royalists have been given the all-clear by the CPP to criticize, as the royalists seek to regain ground lost in recent years to the opposition Sam Rainsy Party.
Prince Ranariddh used a recent trip to Prey Veng province to criticize some government officials who actively tried to discourage royalist supporters from registering to vote, as well as Buddhist patriarchs who reportedly have ordered monks not to cast ballots.
Following the party’s dismal showing in February’s commune elections, Funcinpec officials cited low voter registration of royalist supporters in rural areas, claiming that as many as 1 million people were prevented from casting their ballots.
A senior Funcinpec official said after the prince’s trip that the donor community must watch to ensure the monthlong voter registration process succeeds.
He said a 95 percent registration rate would be considered a success. Without the registration of Funcinpec’s lost voters, the election would not be credible, the official said.
Despite Funcinpec finding a new political voice, two senior royalist party members said last week that only an alliance with the Sam Rainsy Party would provide the political clout needed to mount a serious challenge to the CPP’s dominant position.
Neither was optimistic that an alliance between opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Prince Ranariddh was possible. Sam Rainsy has indulged in years of stinging attacks on Funcinpec’s weak standing within the coalition, and the personal distance between the two is likely too far to bridge through pre-election diplomacy.
NEC Chairman Im Sousdey told the parties Tuesday that the new registration system is a means to streamline the process.
Those already on voter lists for the commune elections will just need to check that their names are still there, he said. Those who have not registered before, have turned 18 years old or have changed their residence recently must follow the normal registration process, Im Sousdey said.
Registration stations open Jan 17 and close Feb 15. In rural areas, stations will be in each commune for 20 days and go mobile for 10 days to reach more remote locales, visit hospitals and the country’s prisons.
Im Sousdey said he didn’t know what the Buddhist patriarchs’ position was on voting monks, but the NEC has no such ban and the country’s top religious leaders will be invited to discuss the controversial matter.
“We will facilitate the monks to vote. I will invite the top monks to find a way,” Im Sousdey said.
Though protests by the Sam Rainsy Party blemished the appointment of the five-member NEC leadership, a Western ambassador gave the group a vote of approval Tuesday.
Despite having been chosen by the Interior Ministry, the NEC officials appear committed to the work and have displayed a level of independence that contradicts charges that they are puppets of the government, the diplomat said Tuesday.
The UN election office in Phnom Penh is also devising ways to prevent the big parties from monopolizing the media, the diplomat added.