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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

CAMBODIA: Polls Were Fair - EU Observers

CAMBODIA: Polls Were Fair - EU Observers

By Andrew Nette

PHNOM PENH, Jul 30 (IPS) - An attempt by Cambodia’s four main opposition parties to reject the result of national elections, in which the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was returned in a landslide, has met with little support from local and international organisations monitoring the poll.

In a short statement released earlier this week, the four political parties called "on the public opinion and the international community not to recognise the results of the July 27, 2008 elections which were manipulated and rigged by the ruling CPP.''

Opposition parties argue the extent of CPP’s win reflects a campaign of intimidation, vote buying and dirty tricks orchestrated by the ruling party in the lead-up to the election.

They maintain CPP’s vote was further inflated on polling day by the deletion of many legitimate names from the voting list and the issuing of fraudulent ‘1018’ forms by local authorities controlled by CPP.

These forms are official documentation that voters lacking proper identification can submit to be able to vote. It is illegal under Cambodian election law for them to be handed out on polling day.

However, opposition calls of foul play have received little support from local and international election monitors, including a 130-member European Union election observation mission, in Cambodia since mid-June.

"I would say that on the basis of the provisional results published so far, CPP very clearly has a large majority and therefore any irregularities would have to be of a very large scale to invalidate the result," Martin Callanan, chief observer for the EU mission told the media in Phnom Penh on Tuesday.

"While it is fair to say we have some evidence of irregularities these are not of such significant scale," he said.

Although an official seat count has yet to be released, Cambodia’s main poll monitor, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (COMFREL), has estimated CPP won approximately 57 percent in the weekend’s vote, giving it roughly 90 seats in the 123-member National Assembly.

This is broadly in sync with CPP’s own projections released to the media earlier this week.

In is also in line with the expectations of local and international commentators who were predicting the ruling party would win big in last Sunday’s election.

According to COMFREL, the next largest party, the Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), secured 21 percent of the vote. The Norodom Ranarridh Party, Funcinpec and the Human Rights Party hovered under five percent each.

While describing the general atmosphere in the lead-up to the poll as an improvement on previous national elections, Callanan stressed it still "fell short of a number of key international standards for democratic elections.’’

Despite improvements in transparency, he said the EU mission noted a lack of confidence in the impartiality of election administration among stakeholders, and that all aspects of the election process are dominated by the ruling CPP.

Within hours of the close of polls on Sunday, opposition parties had raised what they believed where serious concerns about the validity of the process.

Approximately 200 disgruntled voters who found themselves struck off the voter list had gathered throughout the day in the compound of the SRP headquarters in Phnom Penh.

A SRP spokesperson said these irregularities including large numbers of people being deleted from the voter list and forged 1018 forms issued to pro-ruling party voters not on the voter roll, many of whom she said were "foreigners, not Cambodian nationals.’’

Speaking to IPS on election night, SRP’s leader Sam Rainsy claimed that the names of at least 200,000 eligible voters had been deleted from the rolls in Phnom Penh alone.

SRP has since handed out fliers on the streets of the capital claiming nearly a million people across the country were disenfranchised in Sunday’s vote although no hard evidence has been proffered to support this claim.

"I am aware of the comments of the opposition parties rejecting the results but I would encourage the parties to first use the complaint process established by NEC," Callanan said Tuesday.

Officials at the National Election Committee (NEC), the body responsible for overseeing the country’s elections, have said the deadline for complaints about the voter list had long passed and no action would be taken on the matter.

It is unclear what tactics the four opposition parties will now adopt to push their cause, although SRP has called a rally in Phnom Penh Wednesday to protest the result.

"The number of names removed on the weekend was no surprise to us because this is what we found in our audit," said Puthea Hang, Executive Director of Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (NICFEC).

NICFEC is one of several organisations involved in a June 2008 audit of the voter list, which found approximately 590,000 names had been incorrectly removed from list or 0.7 percent of the total electoral roll.

"Every vote is important," said Tom Andrews, a senior advisor to the National Democratic Institute, which worked with NICFEC on the audit and on training observers placed in 378 of the country’s 1,245 polling stations.

"But we need to base our conclusion on the evidence we have seen in the audit and our observers did not show what has been suggested by the opposition,’’ Andrews said. "It showed that people had been taken from the list but that the number was small and there was no clear pattern."

NGOs maintain they alerted NEC months ago about these mistaken deletions but the election body refused to restore the names.

"It is regretful that NEC did not take the opportunity to reinstate those names when they had the chance," said Callanan.

While Callanan agreed the issuing of 1018 forms on polling day was "in clear contravention of the election law," EU observers had only "found a relatively small number of examples" of these being issued.

Most groups monitoring the poll agree the elections were an improvement on the last poll in 2003.

All groups welcomed the decrease in violence compared to previous polls.

There is also general agreement that the technical aspects of the country’s electoral process, including the ballot and counting, are steadily improving.

"NEC proved its ability to organise technically good elections with the planning and execution of the recruitment and training of election staff and other important electoral activities being timely and well conducted," the EU mission said in its preliminary statement released Tuesday.

These improvements aside, monitoring groups say a long list of problems stand in the way of genuinely fair elections.

Many of these have less to do with what happens on polling day or even in the official four-week campaign, than they are the result of decades of instability and the dominant role played by CPP in the country’s political life since 1979, when neighbouring Vietnamese installed them after overthrowing the Khmer Rouge.

CPP almost completely dominates the electronic media, particularly TV, by far the most important source of information for Cambodians.

The EU statement said this situation is "to the detriment of the other parties to a degree which was not consistent with international standards of free and fair access to the media," the EU statement said.

On Jul. 10, NEC issued a warning to 13 television stations for broadcasting biased coverage of the elections. Ten of these were dominated by pro-CPP coverage, according to NEC.

"Not only do people have a right to vote but they have a right to an informed choice," said Andrews. "CPP domination of the media makes this very difficult."

The 2003 campaign also saw a widespread increase in the use of state resources by CPP during the campaign period, including the use of government vehicles and campaigning by government and military staff.

Other problems included widespread vote buying and the interference of village chiefs, the overwhelming majority of which are pro-CPP, in NEC’s voter education activities.

"I say take it as a whole, before the election and after balloting," said Andrews. "I think this (election) was a step forward on the longer road to a more vibrant and healthy democracy. But there are several steps more that need to be taken."


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