THE creation of a subcommittee to sift through opposition allegations
of election fraud and order recounts in suspected areas seemed a positive step by
the National Election Committee (NEC) as it wrapped up the 1998 election.
TIME TO COUNT AGAIN
Election workers move stored ballots from three Takeo communes to another floor of the NEC building on Aug 2 for recounting. A recounting subcommittee was created to deal with opposition allegations of fraud, but a rift soon developed among NEC officials that has led to the resignation of the subcommittee's chair, NEC Vice Chairman Kassie Neou.
But at the Election Results Control Commission's first meeting on Aug 1, the initiative
had already begun to turn sour.
According to sources inside the meeting, which was attended by NEC members and political
party agents, NEC member Prom Nean Vichet, NEC Secretary-General Im Suorsdei and
chief of NEC operations Uk Bong forced a halt to the meeting shortly after the commission
began investigating selected communes in Kampong Speu province.
Three days later, after a sluggish investigation of three communes in Takeo, NEC
Vice Chairman Kassie Neou abruptly quit his post as chief of the fraud commission.
His letter of resignation cited "administrative and management difficulties",
according to NEC officials.
Kassie Neou confirmed his resignation to Agence-France Presse, stressing: "I
have not resigned from the NEC."
Asked for details of his resignation by phone, Kassie Neou told the Post: "I
don't want to talk about it," before hanging up.
What is behind the schism depends on who one asks. Some say it is merely a misunderstanding
over NEC procedures. Others say there is a deeper, darker reason - the CPP is hiding
the smoking gun that could open a nationwide investigation of the election results.
"If you reveal just one irregularity, you open up the whole can of worms,"
one NEC member said after the stalled Aug 1 meeting. "We just wanted to check
one or two communes at random, and they won't even let us do that."
Proponents of the conspiracy theory point out that the NEC officials who are alleged
to be stalling the recounts all have past links to the CPP: Im Suorsdei is a former
adviser to CPP Interior co-Minister Sar Kheng; Prom Nean Vichet is the CPP's representative
in the NEC; and Uk Bong appears on a list of Hun Sen's many advisers.
Ballot bags tied with string - like this one of Funcinpec votes from Prey Veng - is proof enough of electoral shenanigans, say the opposition.
Im Suorsdei and other NEC officials strongly deny accusations of foul play. Some
NEC members do not understand proper bureaucratic procedure, Soursdei said, adding
that when a set of recounting procedures was approved by the NEC on Aug 3, work on
recounts in Takeo province began the same day.
"I would like to say that there is no party which could put this kind of pressure
on the NEC," Samraing Kamsan, spokesman of NEC Chairman Chheng Phon, said at
an Aug 4 press conference. "We would like to say first that our experience is
limited and because of that we are very slow... we are also having technical problems."
But the Takeo recounts were not finished until late the following day, with most
of the first day taken up by a lengthy search for the ballots of the communes to
Opposition politician Sam Rainsy, who has filed more than 370 separate complaints
of irregularities to the NEC, stormed down to NEC headquarters in an attempt to push
the process forward, claiming that the stall was deliberate in order to give the
CPP enough time to cover its tracks.
Time is not on the opposition's side. The Sam Rainsy Party (SRP), Funcinpec and other
parties have lodged hundreds of complaints that include evidence and eyewitness testimony
of telegraphing, polling officials breaking into ballot boxes, missing ballot papers
and the transportation of improperly sealed ballot bags. But the window for investigations
into alleged fraud will close at the end of August when official results are declared
by the NEC.
Although ballot bags tied with plastic cord instead of proper NEC seals have not
raised many eyebrows among foreign election technicians, an allegation of telegraphing
at an Aug 3 SRP press conference did get noticed.
''On the 25th of July around 8pm, a group of armed men came to my house and gave
me a ballot paper," said a 62-year-old man from Kampot whose identity was not
revealed to protect his safety. "They told me to 'take this ballot paper tomorrow
and put it in the ballot box, and ... you will receive a new one. Keep this a secret,
if this information gets out, we will shoot and kill all of your family. If you do
well and keep it a secret, we will support you for the rest of your life.' ''
The man added he was afraid for his life and did as he was told, depositing the paper
already ticked for the CPP in the box and smuggling out the new one. Outside the
station a man asked for the blank ballot and told him to go home quickly.
An election technician remarked: "This is a serious allegation and this commune
will have to be examined by the NEC. If there was telegraphing, there must be a fake
ballot in the box. If there is a fake ballot, we will find it... I hope Sam Rainsy
is telling the truth, because if he is not, it will damage his credibility."
Despite a later call for a nationwide recount, pRainsy told the Post in an Aug 4
interview that he is aware all of his complaints cannot be investigated in three
weeks. Although he remains confident that fraud will eventually be uncovered, he
said he may back off from his condemnation of the results if the NEC continues its
work in a proper and timely manner.
"You will see in the next few days," Rainsy said. "You have only seen
three communes [in Takeo that revealed no evidence of fraud]. I think we should wait
until 30 communes are investigated. If after ten percent of my complaints are addressed
and there are no problems, then I will reconsider my position."