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,"
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
"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
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,"
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.