Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Limited applause for 'Paper Tiger' NEC

Limited applause for 'Paper Tiger' NEC

Limited applause for 'Paper Tiger' NEC

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

to register.

"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

observers.

"[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

bias."

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

Saray.

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