What we can learn from the complaints over NEC appointment

It is hard to tell who is more shocked: the opposition CNRP or the Cambodia Daily. Nothing would leave either of them speechless, but the election of Tep Nytha as secretary-general of the National Election Committee has left both even more incoherent than usual.

What happened is not what either had in mind. Since the days when it was the Sam Rainsy Party, the political opposition has been demanding an “impartial” NEC. To accommodate the demands of the opposition and its foreign patrons, the NEC has been changed several times: from members being representatives of political parties, to members being prohibited from being members of political parties, to (in 2014) eight members being appointed half and half by the government and the CNRP, and a ninth, neutral member being agreed between them.

The earlier changes didn’t satisfy the opposition, because, by “impartial NEC”, they meant a body that would declare them the winner of the election, and they clearly didn’t win any, so there was no way the NEC could meet their wish.

The latest change seems not to satisfy them either, even though it was what they asked for and hailed as a victory. The Daily and the NGOs that regularly parrot the opposition have been similarly nonplussed. Here is how Koul Panha, the director of Comfrel, expressed it (as quoted in the January 14 Daily):

“The public did not expect that the current secretary-general might be selected again. It’s supposed to be about new people.”

People familiar with NGO-speak will already have translated “the public” into its real meaning: “we and the opposition”, or possibly just “I”.

In 2014, the CPP and the CNRP agreed on a new procedure for appointing the members of the NEC. The reason that Panha, the CNRP and the Daily thought that the change was “supposed to be about new people” is that they have fallen into the propagandists’ trap of believing their own propaganda.

After every election, the SRP/CNRP has claimed that it was treated unfairly. These claims have been repeated on every possible occasion, and it is easier for the propagandists to focus on a single alleged villain; this has been the NEC and its secretary-general, Tep Nytha (even though some of the opposition’s complaints, for example that it gets less coverage in the media than does the government, is totally outside the control of the NEC).

The fact that, over 15 years, numerous international observers have reported that the election results accurately reflected the will of the citizenry is irrelevant to both the Daily and the CNRP. “Impartiality” to them can only mean “new people” in the NEC because they have come to believe their own unsubstantiated claims that the “old people” rigged the previous elections.

And now the new, impartial NEC has reappointed as secretary-general someone that the CNRP/NGOs/Daily have talked themselves into believing is incapable of being impartial. Even worse, the neutral NEC member and/or one or more of the CNRP appointees must have concurred in the reappointment. (The Phnom Penh Post quotes neutral appointee Hang Puthea as saying that his view was immaterial, which means that at least one CNRP appointee supported Tep Nytha. Even the CNRP appointee whom the Daily quoted as opposing the appointment did so, not because Tep Nytha was partial, but because “the public does not support him” – that might be the same “public” Koul Panha referred to.)

This presumably means that a majority of the NEC regards Tep Nytha as a competent and honest election manager, not as the capo of what the Daily calls “a committee dominated by CPP apparatchiks” (the use of the Russian term is probably intended to remind the reader that the CPP is administering the local branch of the Soviet gulag archipelago).

But if Tep Nytha has been endorsed in this way, then it follows that perhaps the earlier denunciations of the NEC for cheating the opposition were not justified. Perhaps – horror of horrors – journalists and NGO directors might have to start thinking about the accuracy or otherwise of opposition claims instead of just repeating them. And if members of the CNRP were to start thinking about such things, who knows what might happen?