US Limits Election Aid to Observers, Local NGOs

The US government has decided to donate $2.3 million for upcoming elections, but none of the funds will go to the National Election Committee nor to any agency linked to the government, officials said Wednesday. The de­­cision was seen as a message of US concern over the polls’ credibility.

The American money instead will be used to fund efforts to monitor the polls, a top official at the US Embassy said Wednes­day.

“We are giving $2.3 million to support Cambodian NGOs, to support up to 25 long-term ob­servers and an undetermined num­­ber of short-term observers and to support the UN Election As­sistance Secretariat,” an em­bassy official said.

“That is what we are comfortable with right now,” he said.

The US elections aid package—far short of the reported $7 million originally set aside—is in sharp contrast to that of the country’s fellow “Friend of Cambodia,” the European Union.

Much of the EU’s $11 million in aid is going to technical support and training for the NEC, the agency that is running the elections scheduled for July 26.

US officials in Phnom Penh declined to elaborate Monday on the reasons for withholding direct election aid. However, one elections expert and longtime political observer said the decision re­flects US unease at the electoral pro­cess so far.

“I think it is very clear,” said Peter Schier, country director for the Konrad Adenauer Institute, a German group assisting in election education.

“The fact that they are only engaging themselves with NGOs and the civic sector…shows the Americans are not at all comfortable,” he said. “I think they still mistrust whether they will have free and fair elections.”

One Phnom Penh-based diplomat said the lack of direct aid is “obviously” a message that the US does not want to directly support an election process it considers flawed.

Reports earlier in the year suggested that the US was considering up to $7 million in election funding, which could have included direct aid to the NEC. How­ever, US officials have said that money, which had been set aside in 1997 before last July’s violent ouster of Prince Norodom Rana­riddh as first premier, was never committed.

The US decision will hurt the National Election Committee, which is strapped for cash and recently formed a new committee to seek more aid from the international community, according to NEC member Chhay Kim.

“We lack at least $8 or $9 million. That’s a lot of money,” Chhay Kim said Wednesday. “We would be very pleased if the USA could help us with some money. We would welcome that.”

The US has held one of the toughest positions on the government led by Second Prime Min­ister Hun Sen and Prince Ran­a­riddh’s replacement as first premier, Ung Huot.

While the EU, Japan and other donor nations made early pledges to assist in the elections, which are expected to cost up to $27 million, the US held back until last week, apparently waiting to evaluate the electoral process.

Opposition parties and elections watchdog groups have criticized the NEC, which is officially neutral and independent from the government, as being dominated by those loyal to Hun Sen’s CPP. They have also decried the party’s recent membership drive as political intimidation.

One CPP insider said Wednes­day that the government was not surprised by the US decision.

“This is bad for us. But our prime ministers have a plan ready. We knew we could not count on all the…international money, so we will go to another private company to help us,” he said.

The official, a senior RCAF general, was referring to a controversial deal between the government and a private Israeli-Argentinian company to fund and administer the election if international support fell through.

“The elections will go on. The US cannot stop the elections,” the general said.

Chhay Kim said Wednesday that the NEC—which was not a signatory to the Argentinian deal—is not considering help from private sources at this time.

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