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Cablegate: Cambodia's National Election Committee Improving

VZCZCXRO4971
PP RUEHCHI RUEHDT RUEHHM RUEHNH
DE RUEHPF #0565/01 1931351
ZNR UUUUU ZZH
P 111351Z JUL 08
FM AMEMBASSY PHNOM PENH
TO RUEHC/SECSTATE WASHINGTON DC PRIORITY
INFO RUCNASE/ASEAN MEMBER COLLECTIVE

UNCLAS SECTION 01 OF 04 PHNOM PENH 000565

SENSITIVE
SIPDIS

STATE FOR EAP/MLS, P, D, DRL

E.O. 12958: N/A
TAGS: PGOV KDEM PHUM CB
SUBJECT: CAMBODIA'S NATIONAL ELECTION COMMITTEE IMPROVING
WITH AGE

REF: PHNOM PENH 554

SENSITIVE BUT UNCLASSIFIED. HANDLE ACCORDINGLY.

1. (SBU) SUMMARY: Charged with organizing the National
Assembly election every five years, the National Election
Committee (NEC) has assumed greater responsibilities since
its first outing in 1998, just as the Royal Cambodian
Government has assumed a greater budget burden to support an
electoral organization that arose out of the UN-supported and
fully-funded election in 1993. When up to 8,100,000
registered voters go to the polls on July 27, most will have
better ID's, they will be better informed about their roles
and the sanctity of the secret ballot, and they will enjoy an
environment with fewer shortcomings or hindrances to a free
and fair process than in past elections, including less
opportunities for ghost voters. The NEC has not only made
better logistical preparations in the electoral hardware at
more than 15,000 polling stations, but it has also made some
advances in the software behind the scenes. The nine-member
NEC Committee, nominally non-partisan but drawn from the
various political parties, may not be entirely free of
outside influence, but it appears to be setting a new more
transparent course with some increased efforts to shape a
better electoral climate. In this 30-day election campaign
period, the NEC will consider complaints about violations of
the Election Law (88 filed since the campaign began on June
26) and can mete out fines or withdraw voting rights. END
SUMMARY.

Register More Voters, Get Rid of Ghost Voters
---------------------------------------------

2. (SBU) Elections in Cambodia begin with the five-week
registration process in the fall, where voters can check that
their names have been carried forward from the last voter
list, correct name spellings, or transfer their right to a
new commune. The registration process was considered a
relative success in most provinces, with the sign-up of more
youths who are 18 by the time of the election. At the same
time, the NEC published the names of 503,470 persons it
planned to remove from the registration lists and took
petitions to remove another 82,253 voters who had died since
the last election. An NDI survey showed that over 85 percent
of all eligible voters were registered in 2007 and showed a
high degree of accuracy in name and address capture, thus
ensuring fewer voters are turned away on election day.

3. (SBU) The voter deletion list was more problematic.
While more than 500,000 names were properly deleted --
dramatically reducing the chances of ghost voters assuming an
unused name on a voter list -- it appears that about 49,000
living voters were culled from the 8.1 million eligible to
vote, according to an NDI sample survey. (NOTE: NDI's
survey data showed 57,000 improperly deleted, but was flawed
according to an NEC follow-up review of the voters NDI had
identified as being alive in its sample survey. NEC found a
number of those voters had duplicate registrations and so
were still eligible to vote; a few were in fact deceased -
NDI had found voters with a similar name. END NOTE.)

IDs Help Voters Cast their Vote
-------------------------------

4. (SBU) In close cooperation with the NEC, the Ministry of
Interior undertook a massive program this past year to issue
more national identity cards, one of about ten types of
identification that are accepted on election day when
admitting a voter to the polling station. Because they are
standardized and have security features, National ID cards
are favored and ease access. With support from the UNDP,
more than 700,000 id cards were produced in the last 18
months, though some 80,00 had not yet been distributed by the
end of May. (COMMENT: Anecdotal accounts indicate this
shortcoming is more the product of standard rent seeking
behavior by poorly paid police, who charge a small
administrative fee at the local police stations for this and
virtually all other services. Those who choose not to pay
the fee may not get their ID's quickly. END COMMENT.)

Give Voters the Information They Need
-------------------------------------

5. (SBU) A stronger suit at the NEC has been its growing
role during the 30-day campaign period in producing voter
education information and in overseeing media handling of
issues forums, party debates, news coverage of campaigns,
political advertising, and general media access. On TVK
state-run national television, four hours a day are devoted

PHNOM PENH 00000565 002 OF 004


to the daytime airing (and prime time re-broadcasting) of a
two-hour show that alternates between an issues roundtable
one day and a series of party campaign ads the next day.
Each of the 11 political parties gets 10 minutes for its ad.
As reported (Ref A), a total of 22 NDI-sponsored candidate
debates will be broadcast on TV and radio. Each evening an
"Equity News" show on TVK airs about 20 minutes of
campaign-related news just after the regular news slot. This
TV news coverage is allotted by an NEC-approved formula that
favors the established three parties (CPP, FUNCINPEC and
SRP), gives more time to the next five parties who have
candidates in all the provinces, and provides a sliver of
broadcast time to the remaining parties with fewer seats
fielded.

6. (SBU) All media outlets have the right to sell political
advertising space, as long as it is made equally available to
all parties at the same cost. No television stations have
chosen to sell such time. Instead, a few TV stations have
donated a limited amount of free time to all of the parties.
All 11 parties receive a total of 30 hours of radio airtime
on two radio stations during the 30-day campaign period.
Five parties purchased daily, hour-long programs on three
separate popular FM stations. In addition to overseeing
media access to the parties, the NEC has done a good job of
airing get-out-the-vote messages appealing to the largely
rural electorate with country song and dance routines that
appeal to Cambodians' cultural preference for group
activities. These have been carefully neutral messages that
emphasize voting as a patriotic act. In addition, posters
and signs have emphasized important information related to
election day.

7. (SBU) The Voter Information Notice (VIN) is a good
example of improved performance by the NEC and its associated
Provincial and Commune Election Committees (PECs and CECs).
The VIN gives simple information on the voter's polling
station and a unique voter number that will make it easy to
confirm the voter's name on the voter lists at the polls.
More than 85 percent of the VIN's have been distributed to
voters already and the remainder are available at the CEC.
Since a significant minority of voters could not find their
polling station during the Commune Council elections in 2007,
the VIN serves a useful purpose.

8. (SBU) The NEC showed its new more forward-leaning
posture on July 8 when it issued a statement decrying rumors
that voters without VIN's will not be able to cast their
ballots. (NOTE: Village chiefs in some villages played this
trick in the 2007 Commune Council elections. The
predominantly CPP-appointed chiefs withheld VIN's from voters
suspected of not supporting CPP, stating that the voter thus
lost the right to vote. END NOTE.) This year, the NEC is
proactively countering these practices, noting they are
against the law, and is clearly explaining voters' rights on
election day.

Logistics and Hardware in Place for Biggest Election Ever
--------------------------------------------- ------------

9. (SBU) With assistance from the UNDP, the NEC will ensure
that its 91,530 poll station workers are ready on July 27 to
conduct a smooth election operation in 15,254 polling
stations nationwide. The NEC conducted poll operation and
vote counting training of PEC master trainers on July 1-3.
The provincial-level training has begun. Guides on the
electoral law and ethics guidelines for police and security
officials (who provide security to polling stations), and
observers have been published and distributed. At the end of
June the NEC had registered 15,642 national election
observers (NICFEC and COMFREL are the preeminent Cambodian
observing organizations), 256 international observers, 348
journalists, and 35,061 political party agents from six
political parties. (NOTE: The Embassy will field 45
two-person observer teams nationwide on election day. END
NOTE.) Observers and party agents are able to witness the
entire election process at polling stations including vote
counting. A total of 10,450,000 sequentially numbered
ballots printed with security features are being distributed
to the provinces, and measures are in place to account for
all ballot sheets at the close of polls. An indelible India
ink will be applied to the fingers of all voters to prevent
multiple voting on poll day.

RGC Assumes More Responsibility; NEC's Better "Software"
--------------------------------------------- -----------

10. (SBU) The RGC has assumed about two thirds of the
election budget of close to $17 million. Of the $6.7 million

PHNOM PENH 00000565 003 OF 004


requested from donors, there is a reported shortfall of about
$600,000. Japan is the largest donor, providing $2.9
million. According to UNDP chief election advisor Aamir
Arain, the NEC's most significant improvement since last
year's commune elections has been to take command of efforts
to conceptualize the electoral process and produce the
information and training associated with it. While the RGC
still needs help in the final production of high-quality
information materials, they required very little assistance
with the intellectual effort. Arain praised this achievement
as a break-through for the NEC. The NEC literally has better
software, with a strong IT department that has helped produce
complete voter and candidate lists available to all online or
through CD's, as well as posting poll station locations and
quickly posting NEC decisions.

11. (SBU) Arain had less praise for the legal framework in
which the NEC works -- wondering if the NEC has enough
independence -- but was optimistic that further improvements
could be made in the election law and its application after
this election cycle. In the meantime, the NEC secretariat
seems to be staying on top of the complaints mechanism and
trying to push for speedy resolution of campaign squabbles at
the local level. As of July 9, a total of 88 complaints had
been filed at all levels, a significant drop from the
hundreds filed in the same period in the 2003 national
election. At least one offender has been fined over $1000 in
a case of vote-buying. Of the 88 complaints, 35 are at the
commune level, 40 complaints are with the PEC and 13 are with
the NEC. The NEC committee of nine members will meet next
week to begin to adjudicate the national-level complaints and
appeals from decisions at the lower levels.

NEC - More Balanced or Under Less Pressure?
-------------------------------------------

12. (SBU) Early decisions of the NEC (which has minority
representation by FUNCINPEC and Sam Rainsy Party members who
like all other NEC members are supposed to forswear party
allegiances while serving) indicate a more neutral leaning
than in the past. For example, the NEC ruled in favor of a
strict equity principle for parties participating in debates,
versus using a formula that might favor the three largest
parties with representation in parliament (CPP, FUNCINPEC, or
SRP). The NEC's public statements against potential election
tricks also seem to indicate a more vigorous oversight role
than in the past, especially since many tricks emanate from
CPP-dominated local party operatives who have little
understanding and less appreciation for the finer points of
clean election campaigning. Complaints of an NEC tilt toward
CPP from the militant wings of opposition parties
notwithstanding, the NEC appears to be seeking a judicious
balance in this election.

13. (SBU) SRP candidate in Kampot Mu Sochua's complaint
regarding government officials using state vehicles is a
classic example of a legitimate complaint being carefully
handled by the NEC. (NOTE: This case is also garnering
uninformed coverage by some press. END NOTE.) Mu Sochua's
original complaint -- that a border police official was
preparing to use a state car for a CPP rally -- was taken,
but the CEC noted that the offender had not joined the
celebration precisely because his violation was discovered
and photographed before the event, while he was eating
breakfast. Mu Sochua placed herself physically in front of
the big landcruiser to block its departure. She is now
claiming that the ensuing scuffle to remove her from in front
of the car was a form of campaign violence and intimidation.
The NEC is preparing to hear Mu Sochua's appeal on this and
another case where she placed herself in front of a state
motorcycle and was "almost" run over.

Comment
-------

14. (SBU) Given the strong consensus among local observers
that the CPP stands to gain more seats in this election (as
does the Sam Rainsy Party), the NEC is under less pressure to
vote only along party lines when it would better serve the
dominant parties to vigorously pursue threats or
intimidation, punish petty offenders regardless of
affiliation, uphold fair electoral principles, and produce a
clean election that legitimizes their expected gains.

15. (SBU) In the meantime, while we are not sanguine that
Cambodian electoral politics has managed to rise above the
constant personal attacks, factional rivalries, pettiness and
fecklessness of its main protagonists, signals of political
maturity among parties and at the NEC are growing in number

PHNOM PENH 00000565 004 OF 004


and the positive election climate at the mid-point of the
2008 National Assembly election campaign period bodes well
for democratic trends in Cambodia.
MUSSOMELI

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