Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC), which oversees the country’s polls, should be revamped with representatives picked by an independent panel in a transparent manner with the involvement of all stakeholders, a group of non-governmental organizations said in a report after investigating the latest disputed elections.
The Election Reform Alliance (ERA), consisting of eight nongovernmental organizations, said in the report that election reform must begin with the government-appointed NEC, which officially declared Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) the victor in the July 28 polls despite opposition allegations of fraud and other irregularities.
“The National Election Committee should be dismantled and a new, independent, and constitutionally-mandated election commission should be created with the authority, comprehensive jurisdiction, and budget to operate effectively,” the report said.
“Commissioners of this new body must be selected in a transparent manner with the involvement of all stakeholders,” it said. “Local electoral officials must also be recruited publicly by a selection committee composed of NEC and political party representatives.”
The ERA said that in light of the disputed election, which the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) maintains was stolen from it due to poll fraud, “mechanisms to resolve election conflicts and complaints must be reformed.”
It recommended the creation of a separate body, such as a special electoral prosecutor, special electoral court, inspector general or ombudsman, to investigate irregularities.
The CNRP had said that more than 1 million names had been removed from voter registries in July’s polls.
The ERA cited findings by the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel)—which along with other groups such as ADHOC, Licadho and NICFEC released the report—putting the number of missing names at 1.25 million.
NICFEC and the National Democratic Institute (NDI), another contributor, said that nearly 20 percent of names on the voter registration were invalid, either because they had permanently moved to another location, were deceased, or were unknown to members of the community.
The ERA also revealed instances of duplicate names, over-registration in certain districts and the use of invalid ballots during the election.
Rights groups and the opposition have long held that the NEC heavily favors the ruling party, pointing out that the commission’s headquarters are even based inside the Ministry of the Interior’s compound.
Director of Comfrel Koul Panha told RFA’s Khmer Service that revamping the NEC was essential to preventing irregularities in future votes.
“The NEC is very important because the committee organizes elections,” he said.
“The election committee has allowed politically-affiliated members, as well as district and commune officials, to work on voting lists. Political officials must not be allowed to work on these lists.”
Report contributor Transparency International Cambodia’s executive director Preap Kol called for “deep reforms” to the NEC to avoid post-election conflicts in the future.
“I am appealing to all political parties, the NEC and to technical donors—don’t just improve the election [process],” he said.
“This time, we need reforms to avoid any confrontation emerging from election disputes.”
NEC Secretary General Tep Nytha on Friday denied allegations that the committee favored the ruling party, maintaining that its nine members—who were approved by Hun Sen's CPP-dominated parliament last year—are independent and do not need to be changed.
He said that the NEC has “complied with the election regulations and laws,” adding that the committee is politically-neutral.
“Even though our headquarters are located inside the Ministry of Interior’s compound, it doesn’t mean we are under the ministry’s supervision,” he said.
“If you want to see whether we are independent or not, please look into our work.”
He added that the NEC is working to construct a new office building, though he did not provide details on where it would be located.
The CNRP has made repeated calls for an independent probe into claims of voter fraud in Cambodia’s election, which Hun Sen’s government has refused to heed.
The CNRP has since boycotted parliament over the disputed polls and said it would demand new elections during non-stop mass protests beginning Dec. 15 to put pressure on the government to examine the allegations of irregularities.
Talks between the two parties have stalled after the latest meeting last month yielded little progress.
The CNRP has insisted that talks must have on the agenda discussions about an investigation into poll fraud, resignation of election officials, and implementation of recommendations from U.N. experts and NGOs on electoral and other reforms.
The CPP has said it is committed to electoral reforms, but has provided few details on how it might proceed.
In its report, the ERA welcomed the government’s decision to reform the electoral process, but said the value of such an exercise would be determined largely by how it was conducted.
“[T]he government must make ongoing consultations with civil society organizations, election monitors, and political parties a key part of any reform efforts,” the report said.
“Further, there must be clear understanding of the term ‘electoral reform,’ and that it must include the broad and significant changes and principles outlined in this conclusion. Anything less will not qualify as reform.”
The ERA said that to advance electoral reform efforts, a full review of all election information should be conducted, requiring the cooperation and participation of the NEC, which in turn should make relevant data and documents publicly available.
It called on political parties “to take steps to ensure electoral integrity on behalf of the public” so that the parties can effectively use elections to resolve their competition for governmental power.
The ERA said that based on the government’s refusal to form a commission to investigate allegations of fraud, civil society must play a key role in both formulating reform proposals and in channeling public dissatisfaction following the elections “into positive energy focused on concrete changes to the electoral system.”
Members of the international community should continue to make the case for reform with their Cambodian counterparts, stressing that the election remains unresolved, while donors should consider reform a prerequisite for future funding initiatives, it said.
Other recommendations the ERA made in its report included replacing the current voter registration process with an automatic one through a valid civil registry, issuing national identity cards to all citizens and a system for replacing them if lost or stolen, and creating an independent oversight board to monitor the media during elections.
It called for a special policy or sub-degree to strengthen the neutrality of the Cambodian military, police, prosecutors and court officials, and which would allow them to become members of political parties, but prevent them from accepting roles as officials within those parties.
The ERA also called for reform of political finance to include the auditing and publishing of political parties’ bank accounts, including expenses, funding amounts, and sources of income.
Reported by An Sithav for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.