Five days before the election, Interior Minister Sar Kheng promised to donate his own money to help vulnerable residents in Prey Veng province.
The pledge was seen by some as part of the Cambodian People’s Party’s bid to retain what was expected to be a battleground seat.
But come ballot time on Sunday, voters had other things than the two major parties’ efforts to outdo each other on their minds – Prey Veng was becoming a battleground for different reasons.
Many complained that their names had been scrubbed from voter lists. Others protested fiercely against “Vietnamese” voters. Some clashed with authorities.
A strong military presence in parts of the province led to the arrest of an 18-year-old man in the early afternoon as authorities in Kanh Chriech district’s Kdoeung Reay commune cracked down on villagers protesting against election irregularities.
Deputy commune chief Yem Yuhorn said about 100 villagers had been rallying against people they considered “outsiders” coming to vote in their commune.
“The villagers were standing up against those who had come from elsewhere to vote. But those people had already registered last year,” he said, adding he had no further details on the arrest.
“Villagers don’t understand the election law and reacted this way because they have never seen these people before. That’s why police and military police were down here.”
Reports of a strong military presence filtered in from across the province.
Sin Pov, a soldier usually stationed at the Cambodian-Vietnamese border, said he had been called to another part of the province especially for the vote.
“On Friday, fewer than 100 soldiers came to Kampong Soeng commune in Preah Sdech district,” he said. “They were sent to provide security during the election.
“But it’s one soldier and one police officer per station.”
It wasn’t just villagers, however, who were concerned about strangers to Prey Veng province.
Cambodia National Rescue Party official Heng Danaro said he believed “illegal migrants” from across the border were infiltrating the ballot.
“Two hundred Vietnamese people came to vote in Preah Sdech district’s Reathor commune,” he said. “Villagers asked them to go away. They agreed to leave the station, but later returned one by one to vote,” he said. “They are illegal."
He claimed that “many Cambodians haven’t been able to vote, but many Vietnamese have.”
Polling stations were quiet in the first hour of voting, but these concerns were already rising to the surface by the time CNRP candidate Yem Panharith lined up to vote in Prey Veng town at about 7:30.
Panharith, with an ink stain on his forefinger, emerged from the polling station promising a CNRP victory in the province – a prediction some commentators made in the lead-up to the ballot.
“We’re going to win Prey Veng,” he said. “We’re going to get six or seven seats.”
According to preliminary results from the government, the opposition clinched six out of 11 seats.
The name game
In Peam Ro district’s Prek Ksay commune, about 100 of the 2,300 voters were turned away, their names not found on the lists. Others were told the student IDs or Family Books they had brought with them could not be accepted as proof of identity.
“People are blaming me for not being able to find their name,” said polling station manager Lach Sophea. “It’s not my fault. I only work in the commune; the list is from the NEC. I am very sorry to them.
“If you have lost your ID, how can I know that’s your name in the list?” he asked.
Chiv Vibol, an official from the small Khmer Anti-Poverty Party, said he would not accept the result of the election because his son had not been allowed to vote.
“My son lost his ID card – but he has other forms of identification. But they didn’t accept it,” he said. “The election is also not fair because there are a lot of Vietnamese who did not have any documents, just blue tickets that the commune chief had given them."
Voters whose names weren’t on the list were told to call an NEC hotline for support. One woman the Post saw in this situation was unable to get through after repeated efforts.
Another woman, who arrived to find someone else had voted using her name, was still allowed to cast a ballot.
In Pream Ro district’s Prek Ksay commune, CNRP supporter Mok Meng was in a heated discussion with voting officials.
“I did not see my name and officials have not helped me,” she said, adding she had checked her details before the election.
But Snoun Channy, a voting inspector for the CPP, said Meng had been careless.
“It’s her fault. If she had checked, her name would be there and she could vote.”
UN observers said they had travelled to Prey Veng hearing of reports of trouble between Cambodian and Vietnamese voters. But they wouldn’t go into details of any conflict or irregularities of which they were aware.
“The UN’s not involved in this process, so we could not say anything to the media,” said one observer, who did not give his name.
On for young and old
Villagers of all voting ages streamed into schools, pagodas – and even one man’s house – to vote.
Voting for the first time at a national election, Yi Thida, a 22-year-old garment worker, found it difficult to hide her support for her party.
“I will not tell you who I voted for, but they will win – they won last year [at the commune elections]. The leader of this party always ... builds schools and roads,” she said.
Almost six decades her senior, Chhem Somak, 76, who voted in Peam Ro district’s Prek Ksay commune, said it was time to change – to the CNRP.
“I’ve voted since 1993 and I’ve seen nothing improve. This year, I’ll change – then we’ll see development.”
Voters were invited to feel at home while voting at one polling station in Preah Sdech district’s Kampong Soeng commune – it was in the house of Say Chanthy, 52.
“I’ve hosted national election voting here since 1998,” he said. “The NEC always asks if they can use my house as a polling station because there are no schools or pagodas here. I’m not a member of a party; I’m just happy to help out.”
Chheam Yeap, a Cambodian People’s Party lawmaker for Prey Veng, could not be reached for comment.