NGO Nicfec on Wednesday joined fellow election watchdog Comfrel in deciding not to register poll observers with the National Election Committee (NEC) for July’s national elections, citing a lack of volunteers resulting from, they say, fear of being accused of being part of a colour revolution or rebel groups.
Comfrel had made a similar decision the day before, according to local news outlet VOD.
Prime Minister Hun Sen, meanwhile, yesterday labelled those who appealed to people to boycott the vote as “ill-intended” and attempting to destroy democracy.
The two NGOs were part of a coalition group comprising civil-society and watchdog groups that formed the “Situation Room” for last year’s commune elections in order to monitor the voting process and irregularities during the election season.
However, the Situation Room was condemned by the prime minister after the election, vowing to ban it from monitoring future polls.
In a speech last August, two months after the commune elections, Hun Sen blamed the European Union for funding the Situation Room.
“Your Excellency [EU Ambassador George Edgar], your team sponsored the Situation Room. The Situation Room is like a war command room. Why did you create it in Cambodia?” he asked in a speech before an environmental forum.
On Wednesday, Sam Kuntheamy, director of Neutral And Impartial Committee For Free And Fair Elections, or Nicfec, said the Situation Room would not be established this year, fearing government reprisals.
“Nicfec will only observe from a distance unofficially . . . We will not register our observers with NEC to get observer passes. We are still working to educate potential voters on their rights. We are observing whether voters are threatened or subjected to violence,” he said.
“On voting and counting ballots, we won’t be in polling stations because we are not registered with NEC. But we will observe from the outside.”
Kuntheamy said the decision was made due to fears of a government backlash.
“Due to various challenges observers face, some have said they will not participate as observers, so we only need about 100 observers to monitor the outside of polling stations .”
“Our observers will raise concerns about the current political situation, such as whether those not voting will face accusations of wanting to start a colour revolution, or of being rebels. Such rumours have made former volunteers concerned, so they declined to work with us this year,” he said. “As far as I know, no civil society group that helped establish the Situation Room has registered with the NEC, including Comfrel.”
At last year’s commune elections, Nicfec fielded 10,000 volunteers to monitor the process.
Yaing Saing Koma, president of the fledgling Grassroots Democratic Party, founded by slain political analyst Kem Ley, wasn’t aware of the decisions made by the NGOs, describing the monitoring as a “life-death issue” for the upcoming vote. Saing Koma also let it be known his party hadn’t yet decided to vie for seats in the election.
“Although we registered our GDP [with NEC], we have not decided to join in the election campaign,” he said, adding the GDP is also looking for observers.
Senator Sok Eysan, spokesman for the ruling Cambodian People’s Party, said whether or not an NGO decides to field observers would not have an effect on the results nor would it interfere with voters’ rights.
“The decision not to join election observation is their right . . . There are many NGOs joining, so it won’t affect the result or election process,” Eysan said, adding polling ahead of the elections is “illegal”.
Dim Sovannarom, spokesman for NEC, said that, according to Article 10 of the Election Law, observers can register but are not required to, while also warning potential observers not to demostrate bias for one party or another.
“The election still can be done. There is no problem, and the elections are still legitimate,” he said. “There are other NGOs that will observe the elections, and whether they register or not makes no difference, the poll
is still legitimate and acceptable. And be aware, NGOs, observers must be neutral.”
Since the registration period for observers, which began on April 23 and runs through July 25, over 4,000 have signed up, including 2,000 from Hun Sen’s son’s youth group Union Youth Federation of Cambodia and an additional 2,000 observers from the Cambodian Higher Education Association.
Also yesterday, Hun Sen took to Facebook to condemn those who are boycotting the election.
“It’s [clear] that there is no ‘leader’ telling his people not to go to vote, but only ill-intended people who have a wish to destroy democracy and people’s will,” he said.
He claimed that the turnout rate for elections in Cambodia is higher than in Europe and the US.
“In Europe, the turnout rate of around 30 percent is still acceptable, and in USA, it is around only 40 percent. But in Cambodia, more than 69 percent of people voted. This clearly shows real democractic progress in our country, which is not the explanation of some ill-intended people,” Hun Sen wrote in the post.
The Cambodian National Rescue Party, seen as the only viable competitor to the ruling CPP and which the courts dissolved in November, won nearly 45 percent of the vote, or nearly 3 million votes, in the last national elections.
The party’s former leader, Sam Rainsy, as president of the Cambodian National Rescue Movement, has been the leading voice calling for a boycott of July’s elections.