US, Australia Continue Call for Credible Election Inquiry

In the wake of an announcement by the National Election Committee (NEC) that it has completed its investigation into election irregularities, the U.S. and Australian embassies in Phnom Penh on Monday continued to call for an independent and transparent inquiry into the results of the July 28 election.

“We still say that an investigation into irregularities needs to happen. The outcome of these electoral disputes needs to be something that Cambodian people as a whole will be happy with,” said Sean McIntosh, spokesman for the U.S. Embassy.

The Australian Embassy in Phnom Penh also said that it supports further investigations into irregularities alleged to have taken place during the national election.

“The Embassy calls on all concerned parties in Cambodia to assist in ensuring a transparent investigation of reported irregularities,” a spokesperson for the Australian Embassy said in an email.

Jean-Francois Cautain, the European Union’s (E.U.) ambassador to Cambodia, declined to comment Monday on whether the E.U. supported further investigation into irregularities.

However, in a statement sent to opposition leader Sam Rainsy last week, E.U. High Commissioner Cath­erine Ashton said that “alleged irregularities will have to be dealt with before the final result can be announced.”

“To this end, I strongly encourage your party to swiftly come to an agreement with all stakeholders involved on an adequate mechanism to deal with those issues,” she added.

Election monitors have said the NEC has now completely removed itself from the political conflict between the CPP and CNRP without making any significant effort to fulfill its role as mediator of electoral disputes.

But the statements from international donors calling for a credible investigation are unlikely to influence the government unless they are backed up by cuts to foreign aid, analysts say.

According to John Ciorciari, a Cambodia expert at the Uni­versity of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy, international donors would be unlikely to risk their relations with Cambodia over the government’s failure to cooperate in an election investigation.

“Beyond public and private exhortation, the main levers for immediate U.S. and E.U. influence are cuts to foreign aid. That is a card neither the U.S. nor E.U. is keen to play unless they believe the cuts will precipitate a serious inquiry and possibly lead to significant CPP concessions or even a re-vote leading to a possible change in power,” Mr. Ciorciari said.

“If [donors] expect cuts would simply drive the existing leadership away and would not generate meaningful concessions, they are less likely to find that strategy appealing. International pressure may be necessary to bring about an investigation, but it isn’t likely to be sufficient,” he added.

Although ignoring external criticism has become a post-election ritual for the CPP, the relatively narrow margin of victory this year, along with the scale of reported ir­regularities, has the potential to change typical power dynamics, said Carlyle Thayer, a Southeast Asia expert at the Australian Defense Force Academy.

“Calling for investigation by outside bodies happens after every election, but to my knowledge the NEC has perfunctorily rejected these complaints and not changed a single result. This year is different,” he said, adding that the burden of proof was now on the CNRP to present a compelling case that they would have won the election if not for irregularities engineered by the CPP.

“If it looks like the regime is stonewalling and will not do a major investigation into massive electoral fraud, then outside powers have the leverage of cutting aid or being punitive if that is going to change anything,” said Mr. Thayer.

“But [the CPP] are masters of using all levers of their incumbency in power to prevent these election results from being overturned. They will do it with just enough veneer of legality that makes it difficult for outside countries [to take punitive measures],” he added.

Despite the calls for a credible investigation, NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha said that the electoral commission had done its part in “settling” 17 complaints over the election results submitted by the opposition CNRP, all of which were ultimately rejected.

“The NEC has fulfilled its obligation and we have resolved the complaints properly and correctly. We conducted the investigation properly in order to clarify the ballot count,” Mr. Nytha said.

Prime Minister Hun Sen struck a conciliatory tone in his first remarks following the election, saying that the CPP was willing to cooperate with the CNRP in forming a joint committee to investigate the election. But negotiations between the two parties have stalled since then.

In an initial round of negotiations between the CPP and CNRP on August 9, the two parties agreed in principle to the formation of an ad hoc committee to investigate election irregularities. However, the two sides remain at odds over who would head the investigation.

The CPP insists that it will only participate if the process is led by the NEC, while the CNRP is de­manding that the investigation be conducted by an independent body, as it alleges that the CPP and NEC collaborated in committing electoral manipulation and voter fraud.

Independent political analyst Lao Mong Hay said neither the NEC nor CPP have indicated that they are willing to delay a timetable that would see a new government formed by the end of September.

“It seems that the ruling party is determined to push ahead and force its way into the opening of the National Assembly and the formation of a new government as soon as possible,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)

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