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What price your vote?

What price your vote?

With campaigning now well underway, some political parties and election monitors

are concerned that vote-buying could mar the results of the July 27 poll. Human rights

groups and election observers reported widespread vote-buying after the 1998 general

election and the 2002 commune elections, particularly in rural areas. Many fear this

year will be no different.

Funcinpec's Mu Sochua, who is running in Phnom Penh, said vote-buying had to be stopped

or the election would not be free and fair.

"It should be totally forbidden, especially in the election period when there

is intimidation to convince people to vote for a particular party," she said.

If there was no vote-buying, and the election was truly free and fair, she added,

Funcinpec would undoubtedly win.

Sochua said the National Election Committee (NEC) was unwilling to tackle the problem,

and lacked the muscle to do so. And she maintained that Funcinpec did not hand out

any gifts to potential voters.

"There is no way we can afford this. If we play this game we can never be proud

of taking part in a free and fair election," she said. "There are reports

from the provinces where the ruling party gives out sarongs and other gifts ... it

is an act that has not been punished."

The NEC's code of conduct states that parties should avoid "giving contribution,

gift or incentives either in the form of monetary or material ... to an institution,

organization or individual during the election campaign".

But many think that the line between legitimate campaigning and vote-buying is not

clearly defined, and penalties for those who flaunt the rule lack detail.

"It is open to very wide interpretation," said Sam Rainsy Party (SRP) spokesperson

Ung Bun Ang. "You could argue that giving T-shirts and caps is vote-buying ...

If you give something and put a condition on it, that is an acceptable definition

of vote-buying from our perspective."

NEC spokesman Leng Sochea agreed that the guidelines were ambiguous.

"We still have some confusion," he said. "Two months ago the NEC started

asking for NGO and donor input on the definition of vote-buying. We could not define

the word vote-buying."

Sochea said the NEC hoped to clarify the issue before the end of campaigning on July

25.

The ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) bears the brunt of most vote-buying accusations,

with monitors and opposition parties accusing it of handing out money, rice and sarongs.

But CPP spokesperson Ork Kimhan denied any gifts were given, and said his party respected

the NEC guidelines.

The SRP's Bun Ang said the opposition hands out vitamins to people in the provinces,

which he agreed could be considered vote-buying, but insisted the party expected

nothing in return.

"We are more concerned with their health then their vote," he said.

Koul Panha, the executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in

Cambodia (COMFREL), said he had not seen the levels of systematic vote-buying that

were prevalent at previous elections, but warned the campaign period was still in

its early stages.

Panha said his election monitoring NGO would denounce the result in any constituency

where more then 30 percent of the voters reported vote-buying activities.

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