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Low Funds Hurting Election Monitors

Non-governmental observers are facing a shortage of money for Sunday's election, decreasing the number of eyes watching the polls and the counts and leaving the country's two main independent monitors concerned for the free and fair status of the process.

The Committee for Free and Fair Elections had received $600,000 in elections past, but this year they were given $200,000 from international donors.

The shortfall will make it hard for observers to properly monitor the election, Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said.

Comfrel in the past was able to put at least one observer at each station. Ballot stations in past elections went from 12,000 in 1998 to 13,000 in 2003.

"The ballot stations are increasing now, up to 15,000," he said. "But we've received less money, and we cannot deploy our staff or observers for each station to monitor irregularities, because we have only 10,000 observers.

"We expect that it would have an impact to monitor properly, but we will focus on the most important stations in the main provinces," he said.

Comfrel should receive more contributions, not less, he said, especially considering the rising cost of goods, including food and fuel, in Cambodia, Koul Panha said.

Stressing the importance of observers and acknowledging their lowered funding, Sok Samoeun, executive director of the Cambodia Defenders Project, said he had sent 25 volunteer observers to help Comfrel.

The Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia will field 7,000 observers on Sunday, along with 880 "special" observers who work throughout the final count.

Nicfec has funding for voter education and observation, but this year received only $30,000, which led to a cut in training of observers, executive director Hang Puthea said.

The decrease in funding will hurt the free and fair status of the election, Hang Puthea said.

"It is necessary that we have observers to ensure free and fair elections," he said. "If observers are decreasing, the quality of observation will also go down, and it affects free and fair elections. The decrease in finances effectively causes a decrease in the number of observers, because we have the high price of fuel and the high price of goods, and so we have to reduce the amount of equipment."

In past elections, Nicfec observers wore hats and T-shirts to identify them, but this year, there are no hats, he said.

The National Election Committee estimates around 24,400 local observers from 67 organizations and 433 from 21 international missions, including observers from the US, EU, France and Japan.

NEC Secretary-General Tep Nitha said he was not concerned that a lower number of observers would have an effect on the status of the election.

In 1998 elections had 80,000 observers, he said, but some of them did not have quality training. The decrease in the number of observers reflected improved preparations of the election, he said.

"Of course, observers are a mirror, an eye to reflect the voting process," Tep Nitha said.