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Election Day To See Major Drop in International Observers

Cambodians wait on a line before they vote at a polling station in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sunday, July 27, 2008.
Cambodians wait on a line before they vote at a polling station in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Sunday, July 27, 2008.
PHNOM PENH - This year’s national election in Cambodia will see a severe decline in the number of international observers, election officials said Tuesday.

Only 58 observers from three countries will take part in the July 28 polls, compared to 500 observers from 40 countries in 2008, officials said. Critics say the decline is due to a lack of election reforms called on by the international community and could lead to questions of legitimacy of the upcoming elections.

Kol Panha, executive director of the election watchdog Comfrel, said that the decline was likely because of Cambodia’s failure to implement recommendations of international observers in previous elections.

“These countries have already opined that the previous elections have many defections,” he said. “They have so far given many recommendations, but none of them have been implemented. Also, they are concerned that their presence in the election could be conceived as international recognition of electoral legitimacy of what is actually not a free and fair election.”

Not everyone agrees.

Tep Nitha, secretary-general of the National Election Committee, said the decline reflected a more mature election process in Cambodia.

“International observers are only deployed in a country which has just organized elections at an early stage,” he said. “For instance, since 1993, many observers have been sent to Cambodia, but as we can better arrange our own elections, the international observers have steadily declined. Also, it could be due to their financial constraints.”

But interviews with donor countries, and potential sources of election monitors, show a more complicated picture.

Pok Poun, a spokeswoman for the EU mission in Cambodia, told VOA Khmer that the EU does have budget concerns, but its recommendations have been ignored in the past.

“The European Union is not going to deploy an EU Election Observation Mission for the upcoming parliamentary elections in Cambodia due to budget constraints,” she said in an e-mail. “Since 1993, the regular EU-EOMs sent to Cambodia have made a number of recommendations. Yet, some of them remain to be taken on board by relevant authorities.”

EU recommendations include a review of the voter registry and the prohibition of the use of state property for campaign purposes, as well as equal media access for parties.

The US also has no plans to send international observers to the elections, US Embassy spokesman Sean McIntosh told VOA Khmer. “We are considering, however, how US Embassy staff members might effectively contribute to local observation efforts.”

Observers will be sent from three countries: Brunei, Indonesia and New Zealand, according to the NEC.

There is a chance that other countries will send observers, particularly from Asean states, Koy Kuong, a spokesman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, said.

But Koul Panha also said that not all observers are equal. Those that are being sent now do not have professional training or methodology, so their “simple observations” will likely lack credibility.

Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the Cambodia National Rescue Party, said the low number of observers remains a concern for the opposition.

“The international community’s minimal involvement is because of the government’s failure to do major electoral reforms,” he said. “Not sending their observers means that this time they are not ready to recognize the upcoming elections if there remain voter registry flaws, the government’s media monopoly and the use of state property for a political party’s purpose, and threats to the opposition party.”