Against a backdrop of government criticism of local election watchdogs, Deputy Prime Minister Hor Namhong has been elected vice president of the standing committee of the election monitor ICAPP, which has frequently been criticised for indiscriminately offering its stamp of approval to otherwise controversial elections.
State newswire AKP announced Namhong’s election yesterday, while also noting that the ruling Cambodian People’s Party as a whole has also been appointed chair of the organisation’s Cultural Council. Interior Ministry Undersecretary of State Huy Vannak – who also heads a local journalist union – also received a position in ICAPP’s Media Forum bureau, it said.
AKP characterised the positions as “justice given by the Asian and European political parties to CPP in the cause of rescuing the nation from the genocidal regime and leading the country in a democratic way as well as defending peace and sustainable development”. It said the appointments were made late last week during a meeting in South Korea.
The announcement comes less than a week after the Interior Ministry threatened legal action against election local observers Comfrel and Nicfec – both members of the election monitoring coalition the “Situation Room” – for allegedly violating their political neutrality as mandated under the controversial Law on Associations and NGOs.
Vannak dismissed the idea that CPP members occupying senior roles in an election monitor like ICAPP might violate neutrality, saying critics think too negatively and don’t fully understand the organisation. “They can criticise any side of the coin, but if you think in a positive way and see their effort, those representatives work together for healthy democracy,” he said.
Vannak, who is also President of the Union of Journalist Federations Cambodia, maintained the role of ICAPP’s Media Bureau is to inform the public, with the goal of strengthening democracy. He added that the Cultural Council was first suggested by the late CPP stalwart Sok An, who himself once occupied the position of ICAPP standing committee vice president.
Human Rights Watch slammed the government’s treatment of The Situation Room in a statement on Monday, with Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson quoted as saying “The Cambodian government appears intent on quashing any challenges to its political control – and obviously doesn’t want any witnesses.”
Robertson levelled similar criticisms yesterday at the government’s deepened ties to ICAPP.
“The attacks on the Situation Room show that government is not serious about respecting human rights in the election process or listening to any sort of criticism,” Robertson said in an email.
“In reality, ICAPP and the Situation Room are not in the same league in terms of substance or commitment to protecting democratic rights, and only someone who has not been paying close attention would assume that ICAPP have any real credibility in this matter.”
Lee Morgenbesser, an Australian scholar who recently co-authored a paper on “shadow election observers” like ICAPP, wrote that the monitor approves of unfair elections to endow them with a false sense of legitimacy.
“The cracking down on the Situation Room is a way to avoid the objective judgment of Cambodia’s elections. By eliminating parallel voter tabulations, the CPP can turn to groups like ICAPP for a guaranteed positive assessment of the election,” he said in an email yesterday.
Mu Sochua, deputy leader of the Cambodia National Rescue Party – which boycotted its seats in parliament for a year over alleged irregularities in the 2013 national election – said of the CPP’s relationship to ICAPP: “Any threat or challenge to a free and fair election is a concern to us.”
CPP spokesman Sous Yara said he was aware of Namhong’s appointment, but refused to answer questions about the possibility of bias. “You should learn about the institution’s work – Google it. Then you could make a good question,” Yara said. He added that he did not know what Namhong’s specific responsibilities would be at ICAPP.
Additional reporting by Kong Meta