Stonewall Tactics Fuel Opposition Allegations

As opposition supporters camped out in front of the National Assembly to demand investigation of allegations of election fraud, the top official in the country’s highest legal body offered little hope that their concerns will be addressed.

Although the Constitutional Council is not expected to rule on appeals of electoral complaints until early September, Council President Chan Sok warned Mon­day not to expect any re­counts. “In my opinion, we cannot do recounts because it is not in the law,” Chan Sok said.

His reasoning: The electoral law does not specifically mention recounting disputed communes. Therefore, the law forbids them.

Chan Sok’s summation fits a consistent pattern of stonewalling opposition complaints.

And even though the opposition has so far failed to establish any proof of major fraud, analysts say that the key electoral bodies’ refusal to thoroughly investigate complaints lends fuel to the opposition fire.

With thousands showing up at election protests and politicians such as Sam Rainsy standing by to fan the flames to their own ad­vantage, many are puzzled as to why the Constitutional Council and NEC do not simply agree to more recounts to lay the suspicions to rest.

“This tension could be diffused at the stroke of a pen,” said Lao Mong Hay, president of the Khmer Institute for Democracy and a board member of Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Cof­fel), a national election watchdog.

“It boils down to the suspicion that there is something to hide,” he said. By continuing to stone­wall, he said, “The CPP can have its way, but the suspicion will be there all the time.”

But if authorities ag­reed to random recounts of a couple dozen communes, Lao Mong Hay said, they “could draw the winds from the sails of critics by saying, ‘OK, we have nothing to hide.’”

It would seem that agreeing to more recounts, with the condition that the opposition drop its protests if no fraud turns up, would be the solution—un­less election officials have reason to believe that recounts might re­veal some ballot manipulation.

“Maybe the NEC fears opening a Pandora’s box,” Lao Mong Hay said.

The stonewalling can be traced to Aug 8, when the National El­ection Committee ab­ruptly halted recounts of disputed communes after only eight new tallies. The NEC has said it ran out of time because the electoral law gives it only 48 hours to rule on election complaints after receiving them.

The eight recounts revealed no hard evidence of fraud—a fact NEC officials point to when de­fending the decision to halt them. But opposition parties wanted recounts in roughly 800 communes.

One reason the NEC and Con­stitutional Council may not feel compelled to respond to complaints is that there is little pressure on them from the international community. Instead, many countries are calling on the opposition to quickly form a coalition.

One Western diplomat said that, with a few exceptions, the in­ternational community generally thinks there was no major fraud.

“Everyone agrees there is no problem with the elections except the US and the media,” the diplomat said, adding that the opposition “are just being sore losers.”

Top CPP officials have said op­p­osition cries of foul during the cam­paign and post-election period have been groundless at­tempts to discredit the ruling party’s reputation.

But watchdog groups such as Coffel as well as the US-based National Democratic In­stitute and International Repub­lican Institute have called for more recounts.             Even if recounts are not feasible under the electoral law, the law does provide for public hearings and/or new polls in disputed areas if complaints are found to have “reasonable grounds.”

A government adviser said the CPP stonewalling position is so far backed by the international community because no one wants to organize new elections.

“Everyone agrees evidence found of wrongdoing is very small,” he said. “But everyone agrees if you dig more, you’ll find more. What if you dig more and find enough to justify a call for a new election?

“Can Cambodia afford to not recognize these elections? That is the real question.”

The Constitutional Council and the NEC seem to be thu­m­b­­­­ing their noses at the opposition. Two weeks ago, a council clerk re­fused to even accept a complaint on the seat-allocation formula when Sam Rainsy tried to file it. And Fun­cinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party say the NEC has not given rejection notices for some complaints, preventing them from appealing decisions to the Constitutional Coun­cil.

The refusal to even go through the motions of the legal procedure threatens the credibility that election officials and the government have worked so hard for—and two weeks ago seemed so close to achieving.

With that and the opposition’s public protests in mind, it could be said that the Constitutional Council has at least 8,000 reasons to order more recounts—one for each person who rallied in pro­test of election results at Olympic Stadium on Sunday.

One senior Asian dip­lomat said Monday that the high turnout for Sunday’s protest proves that the protests are more than just the yelping of a few opposition leaders. “They have mass support from the people for their grievances. To make this point must have been a primary objective.”

The will of the Cambodian people was one of the main reasons that the local Neutral and In­dependent Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Nicfec) gave when it became the latest observer group to call for more recounts.

“Nicfec believes it is important that the international community consider the election as being free and fair, but it is even more crucial that all Cambodians consider the elections as being free and fair,” a Nicfec statement said over the weekend.

(Additional reporting by Chris Decherd)





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