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."