Cambodians appear to have overcome pre-election violence and intimidation to independently demonstrate their political will, a joint US observer group said Tuesday.
“What we have witnessed is a successful exercise in self-determination,” Stephen Solarz, former congressman and delegation co-leader, said at a press conference Tuesday morning.
Solarz and James Lilley, former US ambassador to Korea and China, stressed that the statement by the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs and the International Republican Institute was preliminary, and would be modified if systematic fraud is uncovered.
But Solarz said the group’s fears that the ruling party, the CPP, would use its electoral machinery to manipulate the vote hadn’t materialized. In a mid-July report, the group had called the run-up to the elections “fundamentally flawed.”
The various international observer reports are deemed critical to paving the way for Cambodia’s entry into Asean, reclaiming its vacant seat at the UN and the resumption of millions of dollars of international aid cut off after last July’s factional fighting.
In an even more positive assessment late Monday night, the Joint International Observer Group characterized the polling and counting as essentially free and fair.
NDI and IRI had only 55 observers staking out about 200 polling stations and relied heavily on the reports from the Cambodian observers who visited each of the country’s 11,699 stations.
Solarz and Lilley said there had been scattered reports of irregularities, but Solarz added that improprieties would exist in any country.
As for Funcinpec’s and the Sam Rainsy Party’s allegations of fraud against CPP operatives, “we take those allegations seriously…and believe it is essential that they be immediately and thoroughly investigated,” Solarz said.
Peter Manikas, an NDI spokesman, said Tuesday evening that the group encouraged Prince Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy to put together a case and ask the National Election Committee to investigate.
In a separate meeting, Manikas said NEC Vice Chairman Kassie Neou indicated that the NEC’s legal counsel would conduct such an investigation if a case were presented. Manikas acknowledged that there is some concern about whether the CPP-dominated NEC is impartial.
Solarz said at the press conference that it is natural for election losers to cry foul, but articulated a hope that the results would be respected if no pattern of fraud is found. Such acceptance, he said, will make a “very significant” contribution to the evolution of democracy in Cambodia.
Solarz said that while the climate of violence in Cambodia is not compatible with an enduring democracy, it doesn’t by itself “invalidate the legitimacy of the exercise that just took place.”
Lilley stressed that Sunday’s polling and Monday’s counting should be viewed as a step forward in a fledgling democracy, rather than a fundamental change in Cambodian society.
In his most complimentary statement, Solarz said history may well record what happened Sunday as a “miracle on the Mekong,” in light of the polls coming just a year after factional fighting rocked the capital.