The ruling Cambodian People's Party did even better than its own predictions in July's election, and monitors said in recent interviews it had done so by exploiting the election process and a position of advantage rather than an outright theft of votes.
The CPP dominated the polls in July, winning 90 of 123 National Assembly seats, more than enough to enact legislation, quorum and amend the constitution.
The opposition Sam Rainsy and Human Rights parties have accused CPP of stealing votes, but two top monitors said last week that the CPP was able to earn a high number of seats through myriad factors much more complicated.
These included loopholes in the election law, the deletion of voter names from registries, the abuse of administrative forms, widespread use of state assets and local authorities and the help of broadcast media, according to Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, and Hang Puthea, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia.
Koul Panha pointed out that the election law didn't stipulate a budget limit for campaigning, giving the CPP another advantage.
"A lot of upper-hand factors" have not been investigated, he said, "such as money and materials, giving out money to voters, support from local officials who knew which groups of people would vote for what party, messy voter lists and irregularities."
"The loopholes in the law and management of the election did not guarantee a fair election," he added.
The CPP also leveraged other advantages, such as a widespread political organization, the construction of infrastructure and a pre-election row with Thailand over Preah Vihear temple, both monitors said. Broadcasts on television and radio amplified these factors, they said.
"The CPP used the media to propagate its achievements and attract voters," Koul Panha said.
Commune and village chiefs were also a decisive factor this year, Hang Puthea said.
These authorities were able to exercise pressure on voters through a local ballot count, a new procedure this year that allowed them to identify opposition supporters, Hang Puthea said.
Local officials were able to instill bias by warning voters that the CPP would need to win in order for a community to have peace and security, he said.
Though many of the winning factors did not meet international standards for a fair and free election, both monitors said, the CPP also had legitimate reasons for winning seats.
These included economic achievements of the party, its grassroots political networks, powerful officials that solved some crises ahead of the election, and the party's ability to lure supporters away from its rivals.
National Election Committee Chairman Im Suosdey denied the CPP had unfair advantages in the election.
NEC officials followed election law without giving advantages to the CPP, he said, including in the recruitment of officials, the ballot count and throughout the complaints procedure.
Critics argue the NEC is dominated by a majority of CPP-appointed officials, and opposition leader Sam Rainsy said during hearings last week the Constitutional Council, which arbitrates appeals beyond the NEC, followed the CPP line as well.
"I don't think the election made any party gain the upper-hand over other parties," Im Sousdey said. "You claimed alleged upper-hand factors only after the election results had come out. It is not true. The NEC only abides by the law and doesn't want to give anyone the upper-hand."
Amendments to the election law will have to be done democratically, through legislation passed by the National Assembly, he said, and not through "groundless allegations" made by the losers of an election.
SRP lawmaker Son Chhay, however, said a biased NEC colluded with the ruling party to help it win, by allowing the use of state property and media in the election and not enacting a election finance law.
"The NEC is not independent," Son Chhay said. "It was created to help steal votes for the CPP. There is no neutral institution to file complaints with about the theft of votes. Going to the NEC, it is a puppet of the CPP. Going to Constitutional Council, it is the ruling party's puppet."
CPP lawmaker Chiem Yeap, who is also a member of the CPP's central committee, said the party had won its 90 seats legitimately.
Voters showed their gratitude to a party that liberated them from the Khmer Rouge, built peace, rebuilt the nation and its infrastructure and reduced poverty, he said.
"Let me ask you, where can a vote be stolen?" Chiem Yeap said. "The Sam Rainsy Party had agents who signed the proper electoral process report and party agents of all parties signed this to accept the election results."
The 90-seat win was a surprise, he said, but signaled a
trend that could go on in the next commune elections and beyond. The party was
looking for 84 or 85 seats this year, but it could win as many as 100 seats in
the next general election, he said.
"As soon as I heard the NEC announcement of the unofficial result," he said, "tears of emotion came out of my eyes."