SIGN IN PLEASE
People queue up for their registration cards at O'Russey 4 station.
Hail to the chief. The Cambodian commune chief, that is.
The apparent smooth technical start to Voter Registration '98 was a tribute in the main to the louk prathean (the chiefs) relaxing in the shade outside the polling stations, gold pens in their shirts, ICOM radios in their hands, and typed schedules detailing village-by-village participation in their pockets.
With all due respect to the European Union which is funding the lion's share of this electoral process, it seems that these local chiefs are the real technical geniuses.
"We informed the population a long time ago [about registration]," said Leng Sovann, deputy commune governor of O'Russey 4 district in Phnom Penh.
"We got the group [or village] chiefs together when the Commune Election Commission told us, and they then went and told the people they must come to register. And we sent cards to every house informing them of the day they must come.
"If some people don't come to register maybe they're a bit busy today. We'll go around to their houses and remind them."
With such personal service it seemed possible that the EU's $270,000 voter education campaign could have been turned over to these chiefs who would have done the job better and at a fraction of the cost to boot. The prospective voters of O'Russey 4 were there to register because their chief told them to, although some did remember they had heard something on the radio but didn't pay much mind because it didn't mention a date.
But everything was not as it seemed. The chiefs who were doing such a great job ensuring an orderly and complete turnout countrywide were, as it happened, also the cause of a testy political squabble before sunset on Day One.
The problem was not in the "orderliness" of the turnout - that seemed fine - but more about who was being encouraged to register.
The fact that the majority of Cambodia's commune chiefs are card-carrying CPP members seemed to excite allegations of vested interest and bias from CPP's opposition.
"Systematic abuse at voter registration stations," screamed a 5:39pm fax from the Sam Rainsy Party (stations closed that day at 5pm). Rainsy complained that stations were refusing to register some people unless they had come with their CPP "cell-leader".
"This means that only those who have promised to vote for the CPP are being allowed to register. If this strategy continues there is no chance of an election that is even remotely acceptable."
By the morning of Day Two, these concerns had grown even more frantic and widespread. Rainsy's description of "systematic" seemed accurate; the CPP maintained however that it wasn't "abuse", rather the chiefs were just doing their bit for democracy.
In Battambang a registration center was moved from one village to another without voters being told, Rainsy claimed. In Kandal a Rainsy observer was refused access to one station and his party card confiscated by soldiers. "We urge all observers, Cambodian and international, not to turn a blind eye to these gross abuses of voter rights," Rainsy fumed.
Back in O'Russey 4, Sovann said there was no problem with the CPP. He was CPP himself as it happened. So was one of the registration observers inside.
But O'Russey 4 was a special case. The Chief Observer of the EU Observation Unit, Ambassador Sven Lindner, EU Ambassador Michel Caillouet and EU registration director Michael Meadowcroft popped in that morning to see how everything was going.
"I didn't encounter any problems," said Lindner later the same evening.
"What exactly did you look for, Mr. Ambassador?" he was asked.
"Well, this was my first encounter with registration. I tried to look at the general picture. I'm still new here. I have no observations to make about what I saw."
When asked about Rainsy's exhortations that observers not "turn a blind eye" to CPP intimidation, Lindner said he was not in the habit of commenting on a fax which he had neither seen nor read.
When asked if he had any comment on the presence of CPP commune chiefs outside the same O'Russey 4 polling station that he himself attended, Lindner said: "I don't think it's my task to share all my observations immediately with the press... My task is to make my assessment to the European Community, not first to the local or international press...
"I am the chief observer of the EU Observation Unit, I'm not about to share every view or observation I have with the press at each and every stage, and I'm not going to do that."
What the Post saw at O'Russey 4 was most methodical. The officials knew that some high-powered foreigners were coming to see them, so they made sure the commune chiefs had arranged a healthy turnout: by 11am, over 100 people. The chiefs relaxed a bit the next day because Lindner & Co weren't returning, according to registration officials. Only 60-odd people had come at 11am on Day Two.
People wandered into Wat Koh junior high school and waited for no more than a couple of minutes before being photographed with a $400 EU-gifted Polaroid camera that didn't break down once.
The people dutifully produced their identification cards and waited patiently by a desk to be thumb-printed and have a natty identification card laminated and handed over. And at O'Russey 4 there wasn't a single person with a Vietnamese accent who had to be challenged and investigated by the committee chief, according to the official at the address-recording desk, who said challenging such accents was part of her job.
The EU has long maintained that the squeezed schedule will make it very difficult to register every one of Cambodia's 5 million-odd voters in the three- to five-minute window that each person is allocated, to finalize a master voter list by June 23.
There will be technical hiccups, and possibly political problems on which Ambassador Lindner may decide to report to Brussels, if not to the press.
However, many amateur experts reckon that the EU and the maligned National Election Commission have done well to get 1700 or so local registration teams operating as well as they seem to be doing, and in such a short space of time.
Or then again, maybe the congratulations should go to the men with the gold pens and ICOMs sitting in the shade. Watching.