At first glance, it might seem that having nearly 60,000 national observers signed up for July 26 elections would be a good thing. After all, there have been widespread rumors that party activists and village chiefs will try to cheat on polling day, and there are not enough international observers to cover every polling station.
But this is Cambodia, where fear of political dirty tricks is as widespread as the existence of financial fraud.
Thus, the unexpected bumper crop of national observers—enough to have five monitors at each polling place—has prompted dismay in several corners.
First, an unknown number of people have been tricked into paying “fees” of up to $100 in hopes of getting relatively well-paid observer jobs, which turn out to be non-existent. The National Election Committee and Ministry of Interior last week warned against the scam after several complaints, though no one has been arrested.
Then, there are those who suspect a more ominous agenda than simple greed. They fear a plot by the dominant party to crowd out trained, impartial observers with CPP-loyal plants who may turn a blind eye to ballot manipulation.
The second scenario is unproven, but it illustrates the distrust many feel for the CPP, which controls government down to the village level including the security forces. Party supporters have been accused of intimidation and vote-buying in the runup to the polls.
An official with one of the most established electoral watchdogs, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, says he is unsure what what is going on. But he is worried.
“I worry that political parties or political committees may manipulate [national observers],” said Koul Panha, executive director of Comfrel. “Maybe they will try to have a rival statement [about the fairness of the elections].”
Comfrel also fears that polling station officials might decide only a certain number of observers can be present at one time, due to space constraints, and use that rule to keep Comfrel observers out, even for at least part of a day.
“This is our worry, that Comfrel…cannot fully observe the process,” Koul Panha said. “Comfrel wants to enter the polling station and observe the whole process.”
Since international observers will only be able to cover about 10 percent of the polling stations, neutral national observers and party observers are seen as key to detecting fraud.
Elections watchdog groups had previously expressed worry that there would not be enough national observers to cover all 11,699 polling stations. Comfrel and its sister group, the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Coffel), have scrambled to gather about 10,000 observers.
So it was a surprise when the NEC announced that it had registered 59,424 national observers from 13 NGOs. Some on the list were from such previously unknown groups as the Takhmau Agricultural and Industrial Development Society, which registered 509 observers, and the Buddhist Association for Relief of the Poor, which lists an astounding 24,441 observers.
NEC member Tip Jahnvibol confesses that the electoral body doesn’t have much information on some of the national observer groups. He said the electoral law has no provisions for observer accreditation requirements, so the NEC has no choice but to accept the lists of any NGO registered with the Ministry of Interior.
“This vague interpretation gives us no possibility of controlling the process,” Tip Jahnvibol said. “I don’t know if they are genuine or not, but at least the ministry and the authorities have given them recognition.”
The NEC has already appealed to the local NGOs to coordinate their monitors so every station will be covered—and so that there will be no conflict if there are too many observers at one polling station. NEC Information Officer Leng Sochea said last week that many polling places are small with not enough room for four or more monitors.
If there is no agreement among the NGOs, the polling station chairman will devise a rotating system in which each observer could be inside for a few hours, Leng Sochea added.
That formula displeases Comfrel’s Koul Phanha, who said that excluding observers from the two most prominent groups for even part of the day could jeopardize the credibility of elections.
“It should be clear that Coffel and Comfrel should be able to enter the polling station,” Koul Panha said. “We are recognized by the international community and we have credibility.”
“We are not saying we are the best one in the country, but we should be included because we have been involved in preparing for elections for a long time, since before the NEC was formed,” he said.
Leng Sochea disagreed, saying all the observers should be treated as equals to be fair and to avoid rivalry between NGOs.
“We apply, according to the law, equality—but not equity,” he said. “If we applied equity, the big NGOs, the well-known NGOs, would get preference. But we have equality. We treat all equally.”
Jacques Carrio, head of the UN Electoral Assistance Secretariat that is organizing the international monitors, said that he has also heard rumors of a plot to exclude Comfrel and Coffel from polling stations. He said the systematic exclusion of party agents or observers could affect how the international community views the fairness of the elections.
“As an observer, the first thing I would do would be to investigate if there is a trend against a particular coalition…and see if the outcome of the observation is different for different groups,” Carrio said.
He also confirmed that the UN observer organizers and Joint International Observer Group would be consulting with a number of national observer groups, naming Comfrel and Coffel specifically.
“I believe that Comfrel and Coffel have been active ever since Untac days,” Carrio said. “Their procedures are credible enough for them to have access to international funding.”
“It means that what their observers result will be cannot be ignored. Whereas if a limited number of people came up with a vague interpretation of what they saw…they wouldn’t have the necessary basis for their assessment to be considered plausible or credible.”