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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Election funding causes discord at NEC

Election funding causes discord at NEC

FUNDING for the February, 2002 commune elections has become a contentious issue,

causing fissures within the National Election Committee (NEC).

Prime Minister Hun Sen has insisted during his frequent public appearances that Cambodia

did not need the international community's help in holding its elections - a sentiment

shared by most NEC members. However, vice-chairman Kassie Neou warned that such statements

could amount to "biting the hand that feeds".

On August 16, Neou resigned his position as head of international relations responsible

for raising election funds, citing his failure to raise sufficient funds from either

the government or donors for the election. Neou will stay on, though, as vice chairman

of the NEC.

In his letter of resignation to NEC chairman Chheng Phon, Neou said the time was

not yet ripe for organizing elections without external support.

"If we do that, we discourage [the international community's] support. We are

guilty of biting the hand that feeds us. Our efforts would be poorer without the

resources and technical assistance offered by the international community,"

he said.

Speaking to the Post the previous day, Neou admitted that the voter registration

process, which has been extended at some centers for another three days to compensate

for delays and early closures, had been plagued by confusion and irregularities.

He said, however, that the NEC had resolved many problems and pointed out that 72

per cent of voters had registered.

The NEC recently revised its budgetary requirements for the commune election from

$30 million to $18 million, around $3 per voter. Around $6 million of this will be

covered by the government.

However, Kek Galabru, foun-der of the human rights group Licadho, said that the country

was set to spend far more than necessary on the election.

"In comparison, Bangladesh, with its population of around 130 million, a much

larger geographical area and which is also plagued with serious problems, spends

just $8 million on its elections," she said.

Galabru suggested it was time the government took responsibility for holding the

elections, rather than relying on funds from the international community.

Neou countered saying that elections were still a relatively new experience for Cambodia.

He added that the NEC had learned lessons from the previous two elections, which

had considerably improved its performance this time.

"Why don't we realize that countries like Bangladesh have a well-established

electoral system, whereas we are still in the process of building up our electoral

assets from one election to another," he said.

"During the first elections, UNTAC spent a massive $2.7 billion when Cambodia

had just 4 million voters - although this included peacekeeping costs. We improved

that in 1998 to $31 million for 5.1 million voters - around $6 per voter," said

Neou.

"This time we have been able to scale it down to $18 million, though the number

of voters has increased to 6.2 million. This is primarily because we have some infrastructure

and equipment like ballot boxes, computers and vehicles from the previous elections.

We will be able to further strengthen [our infrastructure] during the commune elections,

which means the 2003 general elections - and all subsequent ones - will cost far

less."

Neou suggested that the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), which is responsible

for coordinating donor funding disbursed through the NEC, was not rising to its task.

UNDP spokesman John Brittain said that the organization was in negotiations with

several donors, which meant the funding situation would be clearer within a month.

"In addition to the $306,000 given by the Australian government, UNDP is providing

some support on its own," he said. "The deals currently in the pipeline

will come through in a month."

Amid widespread concerns from election observers and human rights organizations over

rising complaints of poll-related threats, violence and intimidation, the government

has set up a separate security committee to protect commune candidates. The committee,

which was suggested by Prime Minister Hun Sen, will assign 30,000 to 40,000 police

and military police personnel to maintain security during the election period.

However, on August 8 two people were injured when handgrenades were thrown into Funcinpec's

headquarters in Phnom Penh.

Meanwhile, the NEC said it hoped to achieve a registration figure of 80 percent.

Leader of the opposition, Sam Rainsy, and several NGOs said they were unhappy with

the current figure of 72 percent. On August 16, Rainsy led a protest march outside

the National Assembly demanding that registration be extended beyond August 19 to

enable all eligible voters to register.

Many centers in Phnom Penh, Kandal and some other parts of the country stopped registering

voters from August 9, well before the due date, citing shortages of photographic

materials and camera batteries. This prompted Rainsy to 'donate' materials in his

'not very philanthropic gesture' to some city booths. Some critics said this set

a bad precedent.

Eric Kessler, director of the National Democratic Institute, told the Post that there

was no magic number on voter registration that could be termed satisfactory.

"The objective should be to give a chance to each eligible voter in the country

and enable [registration] through awareness and simple registration process,"

he said.

Kassie Neou echoed Kessler's sentiments.

"When we make decisions about closing registration centers early or on time

knowing fully well that citizens are still waiting to be registered, we are denying

our people the most basic of rights guaranteed by the constitution," Neou said.

"That, I'm afraid, could be seen by the outside world as the NEC's failure to

fulfill its task."

Neou hoped that the three-day extension of the registration deadline for centers

that started late or closed early would help make up for lost time.

Election monitoring organizations complained that one reason for the lower turnout

was waning public interest in the election process.

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