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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Election winner: 'the grassroots'

Election winner: 'the grassroots'

THE country's commune elections have been termed Cambodia's first step towards a

grassroots democracy. As preliminary results continue to trickle in, it's clear the

historic polls broke the CPP's monopoly in the majority of the Kingdom's 1,621 communes.

The ruling party will now have to share power either with its national coalition

partner Funcinpec or the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP).

However widespread allegations of vote-buying, particularly in the 24 hours before

polling, election officials' bias in rejecting some ballots, and other electoral

irregularities leveled against the ruling party, colored perceptions. Some local

and international observers felt that the measured step Cambodia took February 3

had a pronounced limp.

Both Funcinpec and SRP protested what they termed biased vote counts and large scale

vote rigging, and demanded action against those responsible. In recounts the SRP

upped its provisional tally to 14 commune chief positions after its defeat in Svay

Cho Choep commune in Kampong Speu province was reversed.

The NEC was set for another recount February 15 in Phnom Penh's Tuol Svay Prey I

commune, where the SRP claimed 26 of 28 ballots declared invalid were valid SRP votes.

The party earlier demanded a recount in 20 communes and re-polling in 51 others.

The NEC had also agreed to Funcinpec's demands for recounts in three communes in

Prey Veng province.

International observers dubbed polling and counting as "credible" and "acceptable",

but refused to bestow the label "free and fair" due to pre-election violence,

intimidation and inequitable media access to parties.

"[These] elections mark progress for democracy in Cambodia, but also raise concerns,"

concluded the EU Election Observation Mission (EOM) in its report.

Low voter turnout was blamed as another cause for the poor showing by both Funcinpec

and the SRP. The CPP's surprise clean sweep means it takes the council chief position

in more than 95 percent of commune councils.

On the afternoon of February 14, election NGO Comfrel said the situation on unofficial

results was still fluid. Funcinpec and the SRP are likely to increase their commune

chiefs from the provisional figures of 10 and 11 respectively, to 18 and 15. Official

results are scheduled for release around February 22.

US-based International Republican Institute (IRI) was the first international organization

to come out with its observation report only 24 hours after polling stations closed.

It said the election process had failed to measure up to international standards,

which set off a war of words between the government and international observers.

"Election day demonstrated that Cambodians have the capacity to meet these [international]

standards but, in truth, the Cambodian government took provocative measures to prevent

them from rising to international standards," IRI president George A. Folsom

said.

Prime Minister Hun Sen, speaking at the launch of a road project in Siem Reap February

7, blasted observers for what he felt was a flawed assessment. He challenged the

"pointy noses" (Westerners) into defining international standards.

"Some people say the election was free but not fair. I say the election was

free and fair enough," he was quoted as saying, "From country to country,

elections are different. If you don't understand this, please go and learn more.

International standards exist only in sport."

He also insisted that the killings of at least 22 commune council candidates and

political activists from Funcinpec and the SRP were not politically motivated. The

Ministry of Interior also swung into action the day after the polls in an effort

to pre-empt any outcry against the CPP's landslide victory.

Blaming the media for "reporting misleading information of crimes such as robbery,

traffic accidents and other ailments causing death," an MoI release said it

considered the accusations baseless propaganda, and they were intended "to ruin

the political environment, national security and discrediting the will and the right

to determination of millions of Cambodian voters".

The statement invited a strong reaction from US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann.

"It is appallingly irresponsible on the part of the government and dismissive

of the international community's concerns expressed time after time, when it is unwilling

to accept the fact that there were political killings," he said.

He said at least half of the reported killings were confirmed as politically motivated.

The rest required more evidence.

Chief EU observer Carlos Costa Neves was more forgiving. He said the NEC's handling

of technical aspects was encouraging, and said NEC explanations for lower voter registration

and turnout were credible. It stated that many students and itinerant workers might

have found it difficult to return to their original place of residence to register

and then in February to vote.

"[We] hope that this registration process can now be built upon and a permanent

register established to enable a more efficient and cost-effective procedure for

future elections," Neves said.

All parties concerned, including opposition leader Sam Rainsy and Funcinpec senator

Kem Sokha, agreed that once the electoral dust had settled, the parties would have

to get on with development work at the commune level to make decentralization succeed.

"The political battle should not be taken to the commune councils. The issues

at the commune level concern local development, not national politics," Sokha

added.

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