RICH and colorful campaign banners adorned the capital at the opening of the 1998
campaign, but the mood inside the National Election Committee's (NEC) headquarters
was not nearly so bright as Cambodian election workers fretted over a budget that
was slowly but steadily drying up.
Slapping the palm of his hand on a fresh report from the election budget department,
NEC Vice President Kassie Neou exclaimed June 24: "We are $5.4 million short!
What are we going to do?"
After a moment of reflection, he added: "But if all the donors came up with
what they have pledged, the shortage would be smaller."
The real pinch looks to be in paying the monthly salaries of Cambodian election workers,
a bill that is supposed to be picked up by the Cambodian government as part of its
$5 million election pledge.
On June 30, Kassie Neou said the Finance Ministry had promised to make an installment
of cash to cover the NEC's June payroll, but the money had yet to arrive and salaries
would be "at least a few days late".
"The remaining 55-60% is coming in slowly," the NEC vice president said.
"Why? Because of low tax revenue. In this election time it is difficult to get
Heads are a bit cooler among foreign election workers, who are in no danger of going
Although they agree there is a budget shortage - quoting a more conservative estimate
of $3 million - they quickly point out that the shortage is based on an estimated
budget that may or may not accurately reflect what the final election bill will be
after the polls close and the results are tallied.
"If the original figures are correct, then there is a shortfall. If that estimate
was too high, we could be OK," said Keith Hargreaves, a manager of the UN Development
Program's election trust fund that has so far funneled $10 million of foreign funding
into the election.
"We won't know more until the actual delivery of the polling kits to the polling
station locations. Then we will see if there are any bills left unpaid."
Hargreaves surmised that the difference between the NEC's and UN's shortfall numbers
is most likely the difference between "money in the bank" - the NEC's account
- and money that has been pledged but not yet received.
Additionally, the UN's $3 million includes $1 million of contingency money that has
been budgeted in case unforeseen obstacles arrive during polling.
At least part of that $1 million looks likely to be spent on helicopter rental to
fly polling station materials to remote areas in time for polling.
Going through the UNDP trust fund is the preferred form of payment for the majority
of Cambodia's election contributors - the two notable exceptions being the European
Union's (EU) funding of the registration process and Australia's funding of the NEC
But one foreign election technician complained that money passes too slowly through
the trust fund, with individual billing payment requests having to be sent back to
the UN in New York for approval.
Additionally, the UNDP charges 13% of the total sum of the contribution as a transfer
fee, the technician complained.
Hargreaves acknowledged the 13% charge for running the trust fund - 3% goes to the
UNDP and 10% goes to UNOPS - but retorted that the election budget already figures
in this fee and therefore does not account for any of the budget shortage.
"In the end, the reason the donors put their money in the trust fund is because
they feel safe donating money that way," the UNDP official stated.
Despite the squabbles among foreign election workers over the efficiency of the UNDP
trust fund for election-related spending, Cambodian officials at the NEC are still
biting their nails as they wonder whether there will be enough money to put all the
polling safeguards in place that they envisioned at the beginning of the electoral
The NEC has already had to settle for a cheaper type of ink that critics say is too
easy to remove to be an effective deterrent to those who may attempt to vote more
Still, Hargreaves is confident that everything will work out in the end - $23 million
of the estimated $26 million election bill has already been pledged, and more money
and in-kind assistance is slowly trickling in from foreign governments.
In-kind assistance - such as the Chinese government's July 1 donation of 27 jeeps
- and the final total of the EU's assistance package could close the gap enough to
ease concerns, he said.
Kassie Neou agreed that the shortfall was not large enough to bankrupt the election.
"I am still optimistic the [international] money is coming, though not to our
expectations. It will be fairly enough to do the job."