THE LEADERS VOTE: Funcinpec's Prince Norodom Ranariddh, casts his ballot on Election Day, Sunday, July 27.
A Paper Tiger: defined as "one that is outwardly powerful or dangerous but inwardly
weak or ineffectual". It is a phrase the National Election Committee (NEC) has
had to get used to in the past few months.
Election observers and opposition party members have been throwing around the term
to describe the electoral body, which is responsible for overseeing the electoral
process from voter registration to the announcement of results.
The debate on its performance was raging long before opposition leader Sam Rainsy
decried the body as a tool of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) on July 29.
Some have conceded that the new NEC is an improvement on the old one, but its detractors
still accuse the committee of political bias and inept handling of complaints.
The NEC is not claiming perfection, but spokesman Leng Sochea insists the tiger roars
when the need arises, and doubts should not be cast on its neutrality.
"No one can accuse the NEC of bias," he says. "We always work with
an open door together with other parties."
It was never going to be easy for the NEC to put its past behind it. After the 1998
general election and the 2002 commune elections, the 11-member NEC board was widely
criticized as biased toward the CPP. Calls for reform came from NGOs, opposition
parties and the international community.
Although Funcinpec and the opposition suggested a representative body, the CPP went
for its own blend of reform: a slimmed-down NEC, with the five members selected by
the Ministry of Interior.
Three of the new members were affiliated with the CPP, and two are said to have connections
to Funcinpec. In theory their independence is guaranteed by having them resign from
any political positions they hold.
That was not enough for some, such as SRP member Keo Remy, who defected from Funcinpec
earlier this year. Remy wanted his amendments to the election law accepted by the
National Assembly last year.
"I disagreed all along to the composition of the NEC," he says. "I
wanted it to consist of six people: two from Funcinpec, two from the CPP and the
two from the SRP."
The CPP's Hun Sen, casts his ballot on Election Day, Sunday, July 27.
Despite the shaky start, the new NEC received plaudits from some.
"They started to cooperate with civil society and political parties," says
Hang Puthea, executive director of election monitoring NGO Nicfec. "If we did
not understand something, they would explain."
But voices of dissent began to be heard during voter registration, and the issue
has still not died down. Thun Saray of election monitoring NGO Comfrel, told a July
25 press conference that the NEC rejected 94 cases of people who were not allowed
"According to ... the election law, the ways they solve the complaints are not
legal because they do not have public hearings or cases," he said.
And as campaigning approached, critics say cracks started to appear in the NEC's
independent veneer. The selection process for the NEC's provincial branches-the Provincial
Election Commissions (PECs) and the Commune Election Commissions (CECs)-irked many
"[The NEC] had the authority to appoint PEC and CEC members," says the
SRP's Remy. "They try to say that this was free and fair, but all of them serve
the ruling party."
The two largest election monitors shared his sentiments. A joint statement from Nicfec
and Comfrel on July 25 stated that research carried out in the provinces indicated
70 percent of the PEC and CEC members were affiliated with the CPP and 28 percent
were linked with Funcinpec.
But the NEC's Sochea says this complaint is unfair. PEC and CEC members were selected
on experience alone, he argues: "We require technical skills, not political
Another issue is the manner in which the NEC has dealt with complaints. The election
law lays down a scale of penalties the NEC can impose on parties found to be in breach.
Sam Rainsy, casts his ballot on Election Day, Sunday, July 27.
If a person or a party is found to be guilty of violations such as intimidation,
vote-buying or obstruction of campaigning, "his/her name shall be deleted from
the list of voters, his/her candidacy or a political party candidacy shall be deleted
by the NEC and/or shall be fined from 5 million to 25 million riel".
Prom Vicheth Akara, director of the NEC's complaints department, says since the beginning
of registration the NEC has received 315 complaints from political parties, 22 during
campaigning. A fine was imposed only once: the SRP was fined 5 million riel for intimidation.
This apparent lack of punishment angers Funcinpec member Sok San, who says his complaint
of vote-buying was rejected despite damning evidence.
"The NEC is not neutral and is not a paper tiger but rather a paper dog,"
he says, referring to the belief that tigers are strong but dogs just bark. "They
are the ones who make their own law but they never follow it."
His sentiments about the complaints process are echoed in the Comfrel and Nicfec
statement: "To date, most election perpetrators have never been fined or disqualified
through the complaints process. [And] it has been reported complainants are always
encouraged to stop or abandon their complaints."
Again Sochea disagrees, saying many of the complaints from political parties lacked
sufficient evidence: "During this period, we need a policy of reconciliation.
We don't want political parties to blame us for being too serious. We don't want
to be seen as a barbarous organization."
But some think the NEC went too far in the other direction. SRP candidate Kong Chan
filed a complaint after a party member was threatened. He complained to the CEC.
Its response? "It asked the person who threatened [us] to give the SRP member
a jar of wine and one chicken."
So exactly what kind of a beast is the NEC? None of the NGOs has yet come out and
utterly condemned it. But some local and international NGOs feel it has a long way
to go before it can be hailed as a truly independent organization.
"The NEC is a real tiger, but a sleepy tiger," concludes Comfrel's Thun