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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Election watchdogs gear up

Election watchdogs gear up

TWO Khmer monitoring groups have begun preparations to ensure the results of next

year's local elections - the first in almost 30 years- accurately reflect the will

of the people.

Evidenced by donors' frequent mention of elections at the Consultative Group meeting

in Tokyo two weeks ago, their legitimacy will be a major indicator to the international

community of the Royal Government's committment to a democratic society.

In response, the government has shown a renewed interest in passing the Communal

Electoral Law in time for the local, or khum elections in 1997 and a willingness

to work with independent monitors.

"In the draft law they have included us in the electoral process. This is incredible

recognition," said Pok Than, chairman of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections

(COFFEL), a monitoring group of Khmer NGOs that officially organized July 11.

"[Co-Minister of Interior] Sar Kheng has asked to meet with us, and both Ministers

of Interior came to our conference. There was good faith in that."

In an effor to partially fill the role of the 23,000-strong UNTAC operation in the

1993 national election, COFFEL and the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (COMFREL)

will tackle the monumental task of educating the Cambodian electorate, monitoring

voter registration and polling stations in over 1,500 khum and observing the final

tallying of ballots.

Although the two groups will not have the manpower or military presence of UNTAC,

Licadho president and COMFREL organizer Kek Galabru said it is important for Cambodia

to show the world it can hold free elections without major United Nations assistance.

"Last time the UN organized everything. We only helped them," said Galabru,

who was also a member of Taskforce, COMFREL's 1993 election monitoring predecessor.

"Now we have to do everything ourselves. It's like children. We are now old

enough to leave our parents and build our own house and family."

Comprised chiefly of the NGOs Licadho, Adhoc and Vigilance, COMFREL is currently

concidering an election budget to present to international aid organizations interested

in funding their efforts. The Cambodian government also has requested monitors and

technical assistance from foreign governments to compliment the local monitors.

Eighty percent of COMFREL's budget will be spent on a door-to-door voter education

campaign. Although television and radio will also be used, Galabru stressed the importance

of grass-roots education.

"If you talk by radio and television it is only one way," she said. "You

can only talk to [the voters], and they cannot ask questions."

A printed pamphlet also is planned, along with an effort to educate the police and

military on the importance of their neutrality during the elections.

But neutrality can be a tricky business even for COMFREL and COFFEL, especially when

people put their trust in election monitors and ask them to help decide who to vote


"If voters ask about individual parties, we will tell them to listen carefully

to what each party has to say and to decide with their heart," Galabru said.

COMFREL plans to have 3,000 monitors ready for the communal elections, but because

the draft Communal Electoral Law has languished in the Ministry of Interior for a

year after it was first presented to the co-Prime Ministers, Galabru said they cannot

adequately begin a large-scale training effort.

"Our plan is to train our existing staff in the provinces," she said. "As

soon as we get the election law we will bring them to Phnom Penh to train them more.

Then [the existing staff] will become our trainers."

Bickering between the Prime Ministers over power sharing at the district level earlier

this year slowed work on the law, according to a Ministry of Interior official, but

the desire to show progress and unity in Tokyo has helped renew the PMs' interest.

The importance of the elections to donor countries was made clear in their speeches

at the Consultative Group meeting.

"We urge the Royal Government of Cambodia to carry out preparations for the

two elections as quickly as possible to ensure that the legal framework for them

is in place and that they are free and fair," the US delegation said.

The Swedes said both the local and 1998 national elections were "of vital importance",

and the British said they trusted the government "will ensure democracy prevails"

when they are held.

Both the Australian and Swedish delegations responded positively to requests from

the Cambodian government for technical and financial assistance, but did not mention

any specific aid packages.

Aid organizations within Phnom Penh also were supportive of the elections, but said

it was too early to tell how serious the Cambodian government was in making them

free and fair.

"The whole thing is still taking shape," said Frank Huffman, a US embassy

official. "The ambassador is reluctant to say 'we are going to do this,' or

'we are going to do that,' until he has a better idea what the situation is."

The wording of the Communal Electoral Law should be enough to confirm or dispel the

reasons behind donors' hesitations. The Ministry of Interior official said the law

could be sent to the Council of Ministers as early as next month, and the National

Assembly could ratify it by the end of the year.

Main issues still being ironed out in the law are procedures that will ensure all

Cambodians are fairly registered and feel free to vote, and that ballots will be

acurately counted. Central to these issues is the planned Communal Election Commission.

In charge of printing ballots and maintaining the polling stations, the commission

is presently expected to consist of between five and seven members including; an

official from the Cambodian Bar Association, a local NGO representative and a non-voting

international consultant. It will be chaired by the co-Ministers of Interior.

Pok Than expressed concern about the extent of power that will be given to the commission

and its independence from the ruling government.

"The ministries want the elections to be free and fair, but when you have the

Ministry of Interior heading the Election Commission, it is hard to say they they

will be free and fair," he said. "They have good intentions, but what may

be free and fair to them may not be the same to other people."

Galabru said that COMFREL has turned down a seat on the commission because the organization

wishes to remain strictly neutral in the elections.

Although the official expressed confusion over COMFREL's reluctance, he said the

Ministry of Interior is committed to holding proper elections and welcomes NGOs to

participate in any capacity that they see fit.

"We don't care if it's COMFREL or COFFEL or both, but we need the local NGOs,"

he said. "We have to get people to feel the freedom to go out and vote."

Because of the political delays, the latest word is that Cambodians will have to

wait until after the 1997 rainy season to place their votes.

"Sar Kheng invited us for lunch, and he said maybe the election will be around

October or November of 1997," Galabru said.

Regardless of the delay, both the government and NGOs said holding the local elections

is critical to the country's acceptance of the democratic process. Eighty percent

of the Cambodian population lives in rural areas where the khum chiefs have not been

elected since 1968.

"I would like to motivate people to understand more about democracy," the

Ministry of Interior official said. "I would like the chief of the khum to have

direct contact with the people."

The khum chiefs fill the important role of liason between rural Cambodians and the

provincial government. They have the authority to set their khum's budget, collect

taxes and keep a record of their constituents.

Galabru said the local elections will be a test to see if the government, local NGOs

and international monitors can work together before the potentially explosive national

election in 1998.

"I have confidence that the local election will be a good test for Khmer NGOs

to prove to the government that we can play an active role in Cambodian society,"

she said. "We hope that more and more the government will trust us, and the

Cambodian people will trust us. Then COMFREL and the Election Commission can work

together to help build a democratic syatem. Not only this time, but in 1998 and 2003."



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