The European Union’s chief observer Wednesday defended the group’s rosy election assessment, but criticized the government’s handling of election complaints and expressed deep concern about the recent violent atmosphere.
“It is my feeling that at least some of the tensions during the last few weeks could have been avoided if the National Election Committee and the Constitutional Council had shown a more open, flexible attitude in handling” such complaints as ballot recounting, said Sven Linder, who on Saturday is ending his five-month stay in Cambodia.
He added later: “I consider the impunity question and ethnic prejudice some of Cambodia’s most difficult problems—and they need to be addressed.”
Linder, who also served as spokesman for the crucial 500-member Joint International Observer Group, plans to issue a written statement Friday that will elaborate on his impressions of the post-electoral process. It was unclear how strong a tone Linder would take.
JIOG was heavily criticized by the opposition and some analysts for calling the elections essentially free and fair only 32 hours after the polls closed on July 26.
The assessment by the international observer teams, combined with the CPP’s declaration of a sizable victory, led immediately to the opposition’s refusal to accept the results and its threat to boycott the government.
After weeks of protests spiked with anti-Vietnamese rhetoric and calls for Second Prime Minister Hun Sen to step aside, the government cracked down.
At least two people were shot dead during street clashes, and the UN expressed “grave concern” over reports of at least 18 bodies found in and around the capital since Sept 7.
In addition, at least four ethnic Vietnamese were killed by Cambodian mobs after a rash of deaths from tainted rice wine. Rights workers say it would be difficult to prove a link between the rhetoric at the protests and the killings.
In his first public comments about the post-electoral process, Linder said during a one-hour interview at his office that more recounts should have been done. But he added “I think recounts would have shown the same conclusion….” The NEC said it ran out of time after completing recounts in only eight communes.
Reconciling the used and unused ballots to ensure massive cheating didn’t take place “would have been a natural and logical thing to do,” Linder added. The CPP has now agreed to do this.
On the other hand, Linder said, the opposition’s case could have been strengthened “if they had concentrated on a just a few” key complaints, rather than filing more than 800.
Linder said he considered the controversy over the formula to allocate seats in the new Assembly to be an internal Cambodian political matter.
Not all election observers have been so positive in their electoral assessments.
On Monday, the president of the US-based International Republican Institute charged that accepting the election would “devalue the worth of elections in building democracies around the world.” Speaking to a US Congressional subcommittee, Lorne Craner criticized the NEC’s unwillingness to investigate complaints, the government’s intimidation of the opposition and the crackdown on demonstrators.
While declining to specifically characterize the government crackdown, Linder expressed in general terms grave concern about the post-electoral violence.
Still, he said, he sees the electoral process in Cambodia as a significant step toward building a democracy. He noted violence was at a lower level than during the 1993 UN-sponsored elections.
“Every single occurrence of violence, every single murder is a crime against human rights and must be sharply criticized,” Linder said. “On the other side, you must put the process into the historical context. Unfortunately, after years of violence, civil war and genocide, it will take some time” before Cambodia is a peaceful, democratic nation.
JIOG was especially criticized for blessing the elections on the night after the polling. The group, in what it described as a preliminary assessment, concluded the process was “free and fair to an extent that it enables it to reflect, in a credible way, the will of the Cambodian people.”
Linder on Wednesday reiterated that he has no regrets—“none whatsoever”—about the timing of that key statement from observers who covered only 18 percent of the polling stations and 13 percent of the counting centers.
He said JIOG had an elaborate system for evaluating the polls and reporting back to Phnom Penh by radio.
More than 90 percent of the observers were able to provide radio reports, he said, and 95 percent of those gave the election a “clean bill of health.” He said debriefings later that week only confirmed their conclusions.
“It was a very, very clear signal,” Linder said. “If it had been 50 percent, then of course we would have put the whole thing on hold.”
The “clean bill of health,” Linder said, meant observer teams had graded the process either as “very good,” with no irregularities or incidents observed or reported, or “good,” with a few irregularities or incidents observed or reported that had “no significant effect” on the results.
After the election, the international observers were criticized in part for being inexperienced in detecting Cambodian-style village intimidation and for not being positioned in remote areas where voter intimidation was most likely to occur. Experts said monitoring was hampered by the number of counting tables at each center.
Linder acknowledged JIOG couldn’t be everywhere, but he said that is the case in any election. He argued Wednesday that JIOG members were “very experienced” and had been deployed all over the country.
“Of course, there was intimidation before the elections,” he said. “But what we saw [on election day] were not intimidated people.” Linder said he personally visited 17 polling stations in the Phnom Penh area.
Linder said the timing of the statement was not only “correct, but necessary. Had we waited until the preliminary results, others would have questioned our impartialness.”
The CPP and national observer groups released preliminary results almost immediately after JIOG’s statement.
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