US pledges $1.8m for Cambodian elections, joining China, the EU and Japan

By: Logan Connor - Posted on: April 6, 2017 | Cambodia

The funding is meant to improve elections in Cambodia, but could also give the US more influence over the democratic process

A Cambodian officer scans a woman's thumb during registration for regional elections at a commune office in Kandal Province, Cambodia,
A Cambodian officer scans a woman’s thumb during registration for regional elections at a commune office in Kandal Province, Cambodia, 01 September 2016. Photo: EPA/MAK REMISSA

The US has announced a two-year grant of $1.8 million to go toward Cambodia’s upcoming elections in 2017 and 2018, in what a monitor said could give Washington more sway during tense political times.

The Election Management Project, financed by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), will provide support to Cambodia’s National Election Committee (NEC), the nominally independent state body tasked with conducting elections.

The money will help the NEC bolster its “election dispute resolution processes”, improve voter education and fix weaknesses in the electoral system, according to a press release issued on Thursday by the US embassy in Phnom Penh.

“Electoral participation is the foundation of a healthy democracy,” US ambassador William Heidt is quoted as saying.  “We look forward to working with the National Election Committee, civil society and political parties to continue to strengthen democracy in Cambodia.”

The US was the first donor to speak out against highly controversial amendments to the Law on Political Parties, which rights groups have called a ‘death knell’ for democracy because it gives the government and courts broad powers to suspend and dissolve political parties on vague grounds.

“Any government action to ban or restrict parties under the new amendments would constitute a significant setback for Cambodia’s political development and would seriously call into question the legitimacy of the upcoming elections,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement in February, after the amendments were passed in the National Assembly.

Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party has accused the US of everything from meddling in its internal affairs to conspiring to stage a coup since disputed national elections in 2013 led to mass street protests against the government.

Sam Kuntheamy, executive director of the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, told Southeast Asia Globe that the $1.8m grant was a “good idea” in terms of improving elections, adding that it would also give the US “more power to monitor elections.”

The US joins a short list of countries who have donated to the election process ahead of commune elections in June and the national election in July 2018.

In December 2016, China gave received $11 million worth of cars, motorbikes, computers, video conferencing equipment and printers, according to The Cambodia Daily. The EU and Japan had previously donated $6.7 million and $1.1 million, respectively, largely for the creation of a new computerized registration system rolled out nationwide.