What is the Electoral Reform Alliance?

[Published by the Cambodia Herald on 28 December 2013.]

After weeks of build-up, in December a new organisation finally released its promised report on the 28 July national elections. The organisation is the Electoral Reform Alliance, or the Election Reform Alliance, as it is also called in some press accounts. What precisely the organisation consists of is a bit of a mystery, because the ERA doesn’t seem to have a website, it has not publicly named any officers or reported on an organising meeting, and if it has ever done anything besides producing the report, I have not been able to find any record of it.

The ERA’s report has on its cover a graphic displaying the logos of 20 NGOs. Eight of these are called “Contributing Organizations” and 12 “Endorsing Organizations”. This raises more questions than it answers.

Do “contributing” and “endorsing” refer to the 20 organisations’ relationship to the ERA, or to the report? If the former, is an “endorsing organisation” a member of the ERA, with a shared responsibility for the organisation’s activities, including other activities if it has any? If so, how does that responsibility differ from the responsibility of a “contributing organisation”?

On the other hand, if “contributing” and “endorsing” refer only to the groups’ relationship to the report, doesn’t that indicate that the ERA is not really an organisation, but is only a name invented to give unwary readers the false impression that the report was prepared by some kind of body that is bigger and more authoritative than the usual band of NGO critics?

A further question about the ERA concerns whether it is a Cambodian or foreign organisation. While nearly all of the 20 contributors and endorsers are Cambodian, a central role appears to be played by an agency that was created and is funded by the US government, namely the National Democratic Institute. Of the other seven “contributing organisations” listed in the report, two do not state how their “electoral programming” activities are funded; two state that theirs are funded by the NDI and US AID; one is funded by the European Union; one is funded by the European Union and a foundation created by billionaire currency speculator George Soros for reshaping the world in the image of George Soros; and one is funded by other NGOs, whose sources of funding I have not tried to trace.

Hence it appears that the ERA “contributing organisations” are not contributing nearly as much as the United States and, to a lesser extent, European governments. “The printing of this report was made possible by the generous support of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID)”, says the acknowledgement on the inside front cover. And it was not only the printing that was made possible.

The dominance by foreign agencies was reflected in some of the build-up to the release of the ERA report. For example, an article – better described as PR puffery – that appeared in the 29 October Cambodia Daily was based entirely on comments about and quotations from the report by Laura Thornton, the local director of the NDI.

The report “will tap into some of the unhappiness over the election results and actually create a grassroots demand for reform”, Thornton enthused to the Daily. She went on, “From our viewpoint, we are talking about a complete overhaul: rewriting election laws, revamping the NEC [National Election Committee].”

It seems not to have occurred to either Thornton or the Cambodia Daily that there is anything inappropriate about unelected organisations, funded and directed by foreign agencies, attempting to “create a grassroots demand”, overhaul election procedures and rewrite the country’s election laws. Indeed, given this attitude, it is a bit surprising that the ERA sees any need for Cambodians to vote at all. Perhaps the NDI has not yet explained to the local “contributors” what it explained to the right-wing forces it funded and encouraged to carry out a coup against Venezuela’s elected president in 2002.

The above remarks give some context to the ERA report’s repeated calls for various aspects of Cambodian elections to be controlled by “independent” or “impartial” organisations, for example: “Reforms must focus first and foremost on establishing a truly independent, non-partisan, transparent, and accountable election management body”; “The government should consider an independent, politically impartial broadcasting regulatory authority …”; “Independent observers have made the following recommendations …”.

What is obvious from any reading of the report is that, by “independent”, these NGOs mean themselves and their foreign allies: “This report was compiled based on the research conducted by various independent organizations [the ‛contributing organizations’] …”; “… independent broadcasting by stations Voice of America (VOA) and Radio Free Asia (RFA)”; “… no independent NGOs were

allowed to witness” an internal NEC investigation; “Further reforms must be made to the structure, processes, and membership of the NEC including the establishment of an independent selection committee consisting of representatives from diverse sectors (academia, NGOs [surprise!], legal organizations, etc.).”

The NGOs’ confidence that Cambodia would be a better place if they were in charge of it is matched, logically, by their distrust of anyone who has been elected to a position (after all, no one ever became an NGO executive through a public election). Thus the NGO authors are quite contemptuous of commune councils, precisely because they are elected; they regularly combine any mention of councils with the warning that, being elected, they are “partisan” and therefore might be biased: “An impartial, unelected professional local body should be assigned or created to register voters, removing this responsibility from the elected and partisan commune councils.”

Well, yes, a partisan composition is the normal result of elections to any body in countries where it is legal to form political parties: the people elected are usually party members. Perhaps the ERA will eventually go to the source of the problem and advocate removing the power of the National Assembly to pass legislation, since its members are unmistakably partisan. The NA’s powers could then be passed to an impartial, unelected professional national body selected by the ERA’s contributing and endorsing organisations from among their own executives.

[I intend in a further article to deal with some of the specific complaints and recommendations in the ERA report.]

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