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Observers: Cambodian Vote Improved but Problems Remain

A woman finds her name on a list during a local commune election in Phnom Penh, June 3, 2012.
A woman finds her name on a list during a local commune election in Phnom Penh, June 3, 2012.
PHNOM PENH - Cambodia's ruling party won the majority of seats in local elections nationwide Sunday, but observers say the vote was not without its problems.

Even going into Sunday's election, there was little doubt which party would come out on top. But critics say the dominance of the ruling Cambodian People's Party (CPP) has been aided by past irregularities at the polling booth. This year was no different.

Mu Sochua is a lawmaker with the opposition Sam Rainsy Party (SRP). Early results suggest the SRP lost ground this election, even in its traditional strongholds like the capital, Phnom Penh.

Speaking by phone, Sochua said she witnessed subtle attempts at voter intimidation on Sunday. She said she saw influential local officials, aligned with the CPP, standing near polling stations as Cambodians arrived to vote.

"It has an effect, it does. It is one of the factors, in terms of voters not voting their conscience," said Sochua.

Observers say the CPP benefits from a long-entrenched system of patronage, which rewards its supporters while shutting out its opponents.

"If they don't vote for the party, it could have some problems," said Thun Saray, president of Adhoc, a local rights group. "Normally they provide donations to every family, except if they know some families in the village, they do not support their party, perhaps they don't give the donations. That is the habit."

Saray also chairs the standing committee for Comfrel, an elections watchdog. This election was an improvement on previous polls, with fewer instances of violence, intimidation and overt irregularities, he says. But, the use of civil servants, police and the military to campaign on behalf of the ruling party, has become a major issue, according to Saray.

He says this election may be acceptable, compared to previous polls, but the country has a long way to go before it can declare its voting process free and fair.

"Free and fair, with the international standard - no, not at all. Because you see the CPP controls the important media, especially the television, all the radio, and also the newspapers," said Saray. "They control the media. And they also have a lot of the money. They donate to, not every voter, the voters that they know support them."

On election day, some radio stations reported being instructed by the Information Ministry not to carry broadcasts by specific news media. This included programming by VOA's Khmer service on two major FM radio stations.

Ministry officials could not be reached for comment.