Cambodia opens a month of political campaigning Thursday for parliamentary elections scheduled July 27. U.S. groups that have monitored the election preparations say violence, voter intimidation, and unbalanced media access will likely mean Cambodia is not able to meet international standards for a free and fair poll.
The last time Cambodia held parliamentary elections was in 1998, and the campaign period was marred by violence and voter intimidation. Two American groups that monitor Cambodia's political situation say the climate has not improved much since then.
Patrick Merloe, who directs electoral programs around the world for the National Democratic Institute, said he does not expect Cambodia's elections to meet international standards. "The conditions for democratic elections at this point do not exist in Cambodia," he said.
"There has been a sustained pattern of political violence and intimidation that both creates and maintains an atmosphere of fear and anxiety. That atmosphere is not conducive to free political competition or free and informed voting," Mr. Merloe said.
The July 27 balloting will decide the 123 seats in the national parliament. Most seats are currently held by members of Prime Minister Hun Sen's Cambodian People's Party and the royalist Funcinpec Party, the government's coalition partner. Altogether, 23 parties are registered to compete in the election, but most are small and not well-known nationally.
Mr. Merloe recently led a National Democratic Institute delegation to Cambodia to evaluate election preparations. He said the group found critical flaws and made recommendations to Cambodia's National Election Committee on how to improve the way voters get information, the way candidates can get their message to voters, and on ways to reduce the level of intimidation and violence.
"There have been a significant number of killings of people who are involved in political parties. The chief of the national police has deemed that none of those were politically motivated. That is highly improbable. But even if that were to be true, the effect on a population, which is already traumatized by a pattern of political violence, of knowing about such events has a chilling effect on political organizing. And even the rather high-profile killings recently; of a Buddhist monk, of a judge, of a clerk of the court, and of one of the principle leaders of the Funcinpec party contributes to that environment," Mr. Merloe said.
That view is echoed by Tim Johnson, the program officer for Asia at the International Republican Institute, which will send a delegation of election observers to Cambodia. Because the government is doing nothing to punish those involved in politically-related crimes, Mr. Johnson says there is a climate of impunity in Cambodia.
"It is not just murders that are not being prosecuted. It is vote-buying that is not being prosecuted. It is village chiefs going around and collecting voters' identification cards for, quote-unquote, 'safe-keeping' or to record the numbers. These are all explicitly illegal in Cambodia's election law. And there is also impunity for these violations. There are explicit fines in Cambodia's election law, for example, for these types of voter intimidation, and not one fine has been given out by the authorities there," Mr. Johnson said.
Mr. Johnson said more than 90 percent of the village and commune chiefs belong to the ruling party, and that leads to widespread opportunities for voter intimidation.
"One of the stranger ones, I think, is when they will call voters in a village together, perhaps in connection with the distribution of rice or cooking oil or some sort of assistance from the government. They will in fact be asked to swear in front of Buddhist monks that they will support the ruling party, which is providing them with these gifts. Of course, those gifts are paid for by international assistance, and later are given in the name of Prime Minister Hun Sen, or are given in the name of the Cambodian People's Party," Mr. Johnson said.
Cambodia's capital, Phnom Penh, has several newspapers, including some critical of the government. But Mr. Johnson explains, most people in the rest of Cambodia do not have access to those papers, or are not able to read them. Therefore, he says, all candidates need fair access to television and radio broadcasts, but that is not happening.
"Right now, you have a situation where six out of six national television broadcasters are all closely linked with the government. They have all said that they will not accept political advertising at all, and they continue to provide news broadcasts that are really just the newsreel of the prime minister's activities, which is not fair news coverage for Cambodian voters," Mr. Johnson said.
Secretary of State Colin Powell has expressed his hope that Cambodian political candidates will be allowed equal access to the media. State Department officer Thomas Cynkin says Washington thinks there is still enough time for Cambodia to improve the situation.
"My personal impression is that we have time to express any concerns we might have on this score, to make sure that people get the message, and that they take it on board, and that everything possible can be done to enhance the access of the various political parties to the media," Mr. Cynkin said.
The political campaign is scheduled to run for 30 days, with a one day cooling off period before the July 27 balloting. But Tim Johnson says the ruling party has violated that in the past, too, by going door-to-door the night before the election, distributing gifts and reminding people how to vote. The evening is called "the night of the barking dogs."