WHILE "free and fair" are the buzz words for the 1998 polls, technical
concerns outweighed all others last week as the government and the European Union
worked out details of $11 million in election aid.
European diplomats confirmed that the EU has not taken issue with Second Prime Minister
Hun Sen's continued opposition to a swift return to Cambodia by Prince Norodom Ranariddh,
nor a National Election Commission nomination process already marred by a vote-buying
The decision to approve the election assistance was made last month by the EU in
Brussels, a European ambassador revealed. The only conditions placed in the agreement,
seen by the Post, relate to technical concerns.
However, the ambassador maintained that disbursements of the loan - including the
delivery of 1,700 voter and candidate registration kits - can still be halted at
any time if the atmosphere surrounding elections continues to darken.
"The problem is that without the European Union's money for the registration
process, the elections will basically fold. I don't think anyone wants to make that
decision," he said.
Prince Ranariddh's eventual participation in the election is still widely considered
to be necessary for a legitimate election, but one Western diplomat said some EU
countries did not feel compelled to stand up for the deposed First Prime Minister.
The diplomat argued that Ranariddh was consistently unprepared during diplomatic
briefings, while the First Prime Minister and never appeared interested in running
the country after the UN-sponsored 1993 election gave him the opportunity.
"We are very disappointed with Prince Ranariddh," the diplomat said. "He
is not more democratic than Hun Sen. He is not more liberal, and he is not more honest.
I am not even sure if he would respect human rights more than Hun Sen. So why should
we insist on his participation now?"
Japan - which is expected to be another key funder of the 1998 elections, expected
to provide about $8 million in assistance for the polling phase of the process -
would only talk about the Prince's participation as one of many self-exiled politicians
they hoped would return home.
"The participation of politicians still abroad is a very important element,"
Japanese Embassy First Secretary Kazhiro Nakai said of his nation's impending decision
on funding. "We do not talk about Prince Ranariddh in particular at this moment."
Additionally, protests from election monitoring groups over the nomination process
of the National Election Commission (NEC) have fallen on deaf donor ears as rumors
fly that several of the 11 nominees have already been bought off by political parties.
The Committe for Free and Fair Elections (COMFREL), in a Jan 8 statement, noted that
it had heard of irregularities in the NEC selection process, and expressed concern
that the commission may not be neutral, independent or qualified.
A similar monitoring group, COFFEL, took direct issue with the nomination of Khmer
Youth Development Organization head Chea Chamroeun, who easily won an Interior Ministry-organized
election for the NGO seat amid allegations of $100 bribes to NGO representatives
in exchange for their votes.
Although the selection of Chea Chamroeun, considered to be close to the CPP, raised
eyebrows among EU member countries, the European ambassador said the EU will hold
judgment on the NEC for now.
"It's not the make-up of the commission so much as how the commission operates
as a unit," the ambassador said. "What's most likely to happen is that
the EU will go ahead with the deal and then sit back to see if the commission acts
in a way that is partial or improper."
Other diplomats, however, worry that the EU and other donors will become more and
more complacent - particuarly after making the initial decisions to fund the elections
- and turn a blind eye to blatant voter initimidation and electoral fraud that would
be unacceptable in their own countries.
"The problem is that a lot of the donors only want to see an election. They
don't care so much about the conditions surrounding the elections as they care about
seeing Cambodians casting their ballots on election day," a foreign diplomat
A senior CPP source said Hun Sen's primary concern with the EU was that it not insist
on the participation of Ranariddh and other exiles as a formal condition for funding.
While the EU had clear bargaining power - "If you take away $11 million, the
election process is killed" - the source said that Hun Sen was confident the
European body would not place "political" conditions on its funding.
That appeared to be confirmed by election insiders who said that technical issues
have been the focus of concerns by the EU. The only areas that the EU has specifically
urged government action over the elections were: relaxing deadlines set by the election
law for voter registration, the public posting of voter registration lists, and the
double-checking of the legimitacy of candidates. The government is unable to meet
the current deadlines, according to the latest Interior Ministry timetable.
The required changes will force the law back to the National Assembly for approval,
but will not create a time crunch as long as the NEC meets the Interior Ministry's
target date for the beginning of voter registration - a distant April 18.
But as political bickering in the Assembly halted final confirmation of the NEC,
fresh concerns have arisen that continuing delays could threaten the July 26 election
Formation of the commission is already a week behind schedule, according to the election
timetable, and the 11-member body must be up and running soon to begin full-fledged
preparations for the polls.
The NEC list breezed through the Council of Ministers after it was drawn up by the
Interior Ministry, but a deadlock in the Assembly's permanent committee over the
BLDP nominee has now widened to a total of five contested nominations as pressure
builds to hammer out a compromise.
Acting Assembly president Loy Sim Chheang said he has sent a briefing on the situation
to acting head of state Chea Sim, who is also president of the CPP, in an attempt
to untangle the political knot.
"Now we have some problems with the vice chairman [post to the NEC]. Some student
groups have protested the nomination of Kassie Neou and both the citizen representatives
[Do Kang Nguon and You Kan]," Loy Sim Chheang lamented.
Permanent committee member Cheam Yeap confirmed a petition was submitted by about
100 students expressing their dissatisfaction over the three nominees.
The senior CPP Assembly member asserted that MPs are supposed to follow the wishes
of their constituents, so the petition must be considered by the Assembly committee.
"In my opinion, the Assembly must examine whatever opinions are forwarded by
the people," Cheam Yeap said.
Student groups with close ties to the CPP have periodically surfaced to exert pressure
on the party's political opponents.
A deal is being pushed that would see Ieng Mouly's selection, Keo Lundy, win the
BLDP seat in exchange for no objections to the three nominations contested by the
student group, according to a Funcinpec member of the committee, but the Jan 14 departure
of Chea Sim to China has created another delay.
Chea Sim, who is visiting his ailing wife in Guangzhou, will not return until Jan
20. Assuming the King remains in Beijing, the absence of Chea Sim would make Loy
Sim Chheang acting head of state, leaving the Assembly leaderless and unable to convene
And when Chea Sim does return home, there is still at least four days of debate left
on a provincial budget law currently being debated by the Assembly, according to
a parliamentary source, and chronic quorum problems could push a floor vote on the
NEC well into February.
The Assembly source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Funcinpec parliamentarians
may attempt to perpetuate the delays to win political concessions from the CPP, which
favors holding the election as soon as possible.
"We have to submit this problem to the highest levels now because the issue
has become highly politicized."