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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - 1.7 million fail to vote, according to NGO estimate

1.7 million fail to vote, according to NGO estimate

So Phay, a garment worker from Phnom Penh, thought she was the only voter barred

from casting her vote. On the morning of the election, she spent an hour scanning

the voters' list on the wall of the Royal University for her name. She could not

find it.

"The polling booth director told me to go home," Phay said. "But she

was the one who issued my voting card. Why did she not allow me to vote? If my finger

is not inked, my boss will blame me and cut off my salary."

So Phay was far from the only person who did not - and in her case could not - vote.

A joint statement from election monitoring NGOs Comfrel, Coffel and Nicfec, reported

that around 750,000 voters who had registered for this election did not cast their

votes.

An earlier statement from the NGO Coordinating Committee showed that another 1 million

eligible voters did not register. Around 6.2 million citizens were eligible to vote

in the 1998 national election.

The Post talked to voters February 3 in Phnom Penh. Some were annoyed that they were

prevented from voting. Another disgruntled voter at the university was 38-year-old

housewife Chhim Bopha. She lost her 1998 voter card and had only the receipt.

"My name was on the voters' list," she said, "but they did not allow

me to vote, because they needed my card to verify my photograph." The EMOs'

statement documented 320 cases where "the rights of voters were obstructed by

the polling officials". They added that "in many other cases, the names

of voters were not found on the voters' list on the polling day".

Panha Koul, Comfrel's executive director, said among those who did not vote were

garment workers, monks, victims of the capital's slum fires, casino staff, and employees

of private companies. Other people were unable to get to their villages, where they

had registered, to vote.

"The [National Election Committee's] registration procedure was very complicated"

said Panha. "Some people did not pay much attention to checking their names

before voting day."

He said that around 9,000 victims of Phnom Penh's slum fires were relocated 20 kilometers

outside the capital and were unable to get back to vote. Others had lost their voting

cards in the fire. He also noted that around 300 workers at an O'Smach casino were

not allowed to leave work.

Chea Vichea, president of the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia,

concurred. He estimated that 30 percent of the 200,000 garment workers who registered

did not vote.

"They could not afford to travel home," said Vichea "because payday

is always between the 5th and 15th day of the month. Also some workers had to work

on polling day."

Vichea accused some factory owners of abusing the Ministry of Social Affairs' announcement

January 31 telling employers that their staff were entitled to leave work and vote.

Others ignored the ministry's recommendation that the employers lend staff money

to bridge the expense gap between voting day and payday.

Comfrel's Panha said some voters in Ratanakkiri province did not know how the electoral

system worked; he added that many Buddhist monks around the country were swayed by

the leadership's call for them to stay out of politics.

Panha recommended that the NEC reform certain electoral procedures, including registration,

to draw in as many eligible voters as possible in time for the next election, due

mid-2003.

Sok Sam Oeun, a director at Comfrel, expressed concern at the decreasing numbers

of people voting in successive elections. He said people should be encouraged to

vote and have explained to them the importance of elections.

"Our people used to live under pressure under previous regimes," said Sam

Oeun. "Now they understand that they will have no problems if they do not vote.

We are concerned that many people will not turn out in the next national election."

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