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Cambodia’s strongman needs a little help from his friends:
Canadian election observer Sheila Copps lends a hand

by Catherine Morris *

4 October 2013

Cambodia’s post-election deadlock has been grinding on since July 28, 2013, amid demands for an independent investigation of vote rigging, a military buildup, mass opposition protests, incidents of brutal police violence and an opposition boycott of the National Assembly. The official winner was the Cambodia People’s Party (CPP) headed by Prime Minister Hun Sen, who has led the country for nearly three decades. The CPP bolsters the legitimacy of its election win with frequent claims that “international observers” pronounced the election free and fair. This flatly contradicts findings of reputable independent national and international election observers.

Less than a day after the polls closed, a Phnom Penh press conference starred Canada’s “former Deputy Prime Minister,” Sheila Copps, who was front and centre at the unveiling of a statement [.pdf] lauding the election as “free, fair and transparent,” a “triumph of popular will.” Copps was among about 60 volunteers sent by the Centrist Asia-Pacific Democrats International (CAPDI) and an affiliate organization.

CAPDI’s claims are sharply at odds with conclusions of independent observers like Transparency International [.pdf] which deployed 907 observers to 406 of Cambodia’s 19,009 polling stations, finding widespread irregularities.

Independent observers said the election was neither free nor fair

National independent observers documented thousands of complaints, four times more than in the previous election. A coalition of more than 20 Cambodian non-governmental observer groups found less violence than in previous elections but also less integrity; the July 28 polls were neither free nor fair.

Months before election day, the United Nations expert on human rights in Cambodia, Surya Subedi [.doc], was among those expressing concerns about the independence of Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC), integrity of the voter list, lack of equal access to television media for all political parties, use of State resources for campaigning and voter intimidation.

Cambodia’s election context includes a political environment marked by violence, entrenched corruption and human rights abuses, including nation-wide land-grabbing by politically-connected elites. Lack of independent courts and other institutions has made it easy to get away with attacks on land-rights activists, environmentalists, unionists, journalists and opposition supporters. Police and courts are routinely used to silence and punish dissenters through trumped up charges, arbitrary arrests and forcible suppression of protests.

What motivated CAPDI’s swift and glowing report? Friends in all the right places

In this context, what could have motivated CAPDI’s swift and glowing report? In May 2013, Hun Sen asked them to monitor the election. Hun Sen is a past chair of CAPDI. Cambodia’s Deputy Prime Minister, Sok An, and Hun Sen’s son, Hun Mani, are current members of CAPDI’s Governing Council. The ruling party reportedly paid for some of the monitoring team’s local expenses.

How did Canada’s Sheila Copps get involved? It turns out she was no ordinary CAPDI volunteer. She, too, serves on CAPDI’s Governing Council.

CAPDI’s mission fails the test of independence and transparency.

CAPDI’s mandate was narrow. Sheila Copps admits that CAPDI’s report applies only to election day, not the whole election. The team watched peaceful line-ups and ballot counting at about a dozen polling stations, several of which were pre-selected by the NEC.

Yet, the easy-to-find Election Manual of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, now in its fifth edition, emphasizes the importance of monitoring of pre- and post-election periods. Nowadays, governments intent on cheating rely less on election-day intimidation, ballot box stuffing and bad vote counting and more on pre-election rigging of voter registration, restricting media freedom and undermining independence of courts and institutions.

Despite concerns, the election period has been characterised by unprecedented political engagement by Cambodia’s youth under 25, including enthusiastic use of social media. The youthful cry for “change” accounts for the narrowing support for Hun Sen. Some foreign commentators urge the opposition to accept its gains and join parliament.

Many foreign analysts believe election irregularities may not have affected the overall majority for the CPP. We will never know. Hun Sen seems to have been uncertain enough about the election that he needed a little help from his friends. What is clear is that confidence in the election results is low and public tensions remain ominously high.

The shaky foundation of the Cambodian government’s regular use of statements by “international monitors” has remained largely unexamined. Foreign election monitoring efforts that fail to meet basic international standards of competence, transparency and non-partisanship – such as Sheila Copps’ junket in Cambodia -- are easily manipulated by powerful political actors claiming legitimacy they do not deserve. This should be a cautionary tale to those who monitor elections in countries they do not know.

* Catherine Morris chairs the non-profit Peacemakers Trust, a Canadian charitable organization for research and education on peacebuilding and conflict transformation. She teaches international human rights at the University of Victoria. She has been visiting Cambodia since 1995 and has written on Cambodia’s past election conflicts.

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