Rulling that neither a recount nor further investigation into voting irregularities in Kratie province was warranted, the Constitutional Council on Saturday ordered only that the National Election Committee punish polling-station workers who had failed to properly seal ballot packages – a punishment NEC officials yesterday said would be light.
The Saturday hearing marked the first public inquiry ordered by the council since its investigations began two weeks ago and focused solely on documents from Kratie province, where eight out of 13 safety packets examined late last month were found to be unsealed. The opposition had called for a recount of ballots at those polling stations.
“The mistakes of the polling-station officers and ballot-counting officers in eight polling stations in Svay Chreah commune must be punished according to the law stated,” Constitutional Council president Ek Sam Ol wrote in a decision released on Saturday afternoon. “[It is the] duty of the National Election Committee to take action punishing the officers who have acted illegally.”
The hearing lasted nearly six hours but heard only from CNRP representatives and representatives of the NEC, which earlier this month ruled against the opposition on complaints of irregularities in Kratie.
Before issuing the ruling, Sam Ol called on the opposition for proof that serious wrongdoing had occurred.
“Did any violence happen for the voters, and were people able to vote secretly?” he asked CNRP lawyer Choung Choungy, who in response accused him of setting the bar too low.
“Even though there was no violence and people voted secretly, such an election could not be considered just and transparent,” Choungy said.
NEC secretary-general Tep Nytha said yesterday that the body was prepared to comply with the council’s ruling and was still deciding what form the punishment of polling station workers would take.
“We will search for them and take action based on their mistakes. We will not punish them seriously, because their salary is small.… If we punish them seriously, there would be no one working with us,” Nytha said. “This is a careless mistake. It does not affect the results of election.”
Yuth Yean, chief of the Svay Chreah Commune Election Commission declined to comment on the ruling.
Monitors and the opposition, however, blasted the decision, calling it ludicrous to punish the lowest-level officials while not taking pains to censure those in charge.
“You must punish the NEC, because the law requires the NEC to be responsible for the election,” Puthea Hang, executive director of election watchdog Nicfec, said.
Cambodian Center for Human Rights president Ou Virak said further investigation should have been ordered.
If they ordered the NEC to “either open more [polling-station packages], or check the actual ballots against existing packages, it would have at least calmed many of the suspicions and accusations,” he said.
Kratie is one among six provinces that the opposition claims to have done better in than official preliminary results recognise. While the NEC results show the CPP won 68 seats to the CNRP’s 55, CNRP say its count sees it winning with 63 seats.
The party had requested that packages from more than 200 polling stations in Kratie be opened, “but they just opened a few bags”, CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said.
“I don’t think we got a fair trial because we complained about so many things and they responded to only one point … so we are heading to the mass demonstration on September 7.”
Barring a thorough investigation into election irregularities, the CNRP has vowed to carry out a widespread demonstration one day before the NEC is set to release final election results.
At the order of the Constitutional Council, the NEC has continued to open polling records. On Friday, it opened 12 packages from Siem Reap, a number of which were unsealed. Yesterday, it opened eight from Kandal – the most hotly contested province.
Though the CNRP was shy of winning an additional seat by just 170 votes, according to analysis carried out by an independent researcher, the investigation looked at packages from only eight polling stations.
Unlike with the Kratie documents, all “Safety Packages A” – the bag containing original tally documents and ballots – were sealed. Problems appeared minimal, with a single missing form.
Ministry of Interior secretary of state Prum Sokha said the process showed irregularities were minute and would not have affected the final results.
But CNRP officials said after the verification that it had called for hundreds of bags to be checked and asked the council to investigate a raft of irregularities in the province.
Speaking to reporters following the audit, Kuoy Bunroeun said he wanted a re-vote in Sa’ang Phnom commune, where polling stations closed early.
CCHR’s Virak said there was little reason not to comply with the party’s request to see more packages opened.
“If the CNRP asked for more, we should open more.… Kandal merits quite a lot more investigation.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ABBY SEIFF