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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Shaky start to voter enrolment

Shaky start to voter enrolment

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shaky.jpg

Prime Minister Hun Sen holds his voter registration card, but other citizens have been less fortunate when applying for theirs. See other stories pages 2 and 4.

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elays, confusions and sporadic irregularities marked the July 21 start of the process

to register Cambodia's 6.2 million voters for the commune council elections next

February.

Although registration will continue until August 16, preliminary reports compiled

by Election Monitoring Organizations (EMOs) in seven major provinces showed that

only 30 per cent of eligible voters had registered by July 31.

Sek Sophal of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Coffel) said many potential

voters had either been left out or been reluctant to come forward due to confusions

about the registration process and its timing.

By far the worst registration rate was recorded in Kampong Cham. The slow movement

of equipment and logistics resulted in only 4.2 percent of voters registering over

10 days, said the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel).

Authorities aim to register 80 percent of eligible voters, including 800,000 new

voters who either did not register in 1998 or were too young to vote.

The 1998 elections, in which some 90 percent of voters cast their ballots, saw several

cases of violence and a bloodbath in Kampong Cham. Observers attributed local voters'

current lack of interest to their disenchantment with the political process.

Dr Lao Mong Hay, executive director of the Khmer Institute of Democracy, however,

felt that low registration was also an indicator of voter unhappiness with the proportional

system of election.

"They don't want to vote for the party any more, but they would like to vote

for individuals. There is this sense of helplessness that they can't effect any change

[to the system of voting for a party] through the ballot box," he said.

Meanwhile the opposition Sam Rainsy Party has requested the National Assembly Speaker

to summon the NEC president to explain the numerous reports of confusion and irregularities.

In a separate letter addressed to the NEC president, Chheng Phon, Sam Rainsy demanded

that the registration deadline be extended beyond August 16 to allow all eligible

Cambodians to register.

"The NEC's instructions are not filtering down to the provincial and commune

levels," he said.

"[Because of this] confusions and irregularities are continuing."

Funcinpec senator Kem Sokha also added that confusion and irregularities were severely

hampering the registration process. He blamed the NEC, saying some centers did not

even have adequate materials for registration, and that it had not made the public

sufficiently aware of the registration process.

The NEC however defended itself against charges of incompetence. An official said

that severe flooding in the remote northern province of Preah Vihear had meant trucks

carrying registration materials to several communes had been unable to get there

on time.

"In some cases we have had to use elephants to transport materials," he

added.

However Chan Ven, senior CPP leader and deputy secretary general of the National

Assembly, expressed his satisfaction with the progress of registration.

"We need to understand that these elections are not UNTAC elections. We are

organizing them without any [outside] means," Ven said.

PM starts ball rolling

Prime Minister Hun Sen formally kicked off registration in his native Takhmao commune

in Kandal province. He exhorted his CPP supporters to register as only maximum voter

participation could guarantee the party's success.

However, the low rate of voter registration was obvious during a random check by

the Post of registration centers. On day four, local Commune Election Committee (CEC)

chief Mam Soeung complained that his registration centers had seen only 45 voters

a day.

"In 1998, around 100 voters were coming in to each center every day," he

said, adding that voters were probably confused over the fact that several registration

centers had been set up within the commune.

EMOs blamed the slow progress on a lack of awareness among voters and registration

officials, and said they had recorded more than 50 irregularities in the process

so far.

In some cases voters had been shuttled between registration centers and asked to

present multiple documents as proof of birth and residence. Officials, who were regularly

unaware of registration requirements, often imposed their own conditions of registration.

Coffel's Sophal said: "Initially, residents were asked to register only in the

center meant for their village. A large number of people who landed up at their nearest

registration center were sent back after hours of waiting, saying their turn hadn't

come yet."

The 1,621 communes have been split into 12,400 registration centers-cum-polling and

counting stations, each designed to handle a maximum of 700 voters. Two teams of

officials have been assigned to each commune. They stay at two centers for three

days before moving on.

Sophal said if the residents missed their turn in one center, they still did not

know they could go to another within the same commune, as clarified by the NEC on

July 29. The organization said it hoped registration figures would improve considerably

over the next two weeks, as "problems are being solved" along the way.

EMOs also said they were concerned at the bias of some village chiefs, some of whom

have been asked to inform voters about registration. They said that in some cases

village and commune chiefs had brought supporters of their own party to the centers

en masse.

One resident in Kandal province told the Post that on July 21 Khieu Sophorn and

Chiam Khoy, commune and village leaders respectively, entered the registration centers

with a large group of supporters. Those whose loyalty to the party was suspect were

forbidden, under one pretext or another, to register.

"It's a calculated move. The idea is that wherever the number of opponents is

high, [they] identify them and limit their registration, so that it doesn't affect

the results," one observer said.

Other problems have arisen over the documents required to register. EMOs said that

stories of people turned away unfairly were commonplace. The law states that voters

should present either an old voters' card, the family book or their age certificate,

and that those who lacked documentation should get a certification letter from their

commune chief. This requirement has been abused by some, said Panha Koul of Comfrel.

"For example, 45 percent of the family books in Roka Koy commune mention only

the year of birth of each family member and not the date and month. These then had

to be endorsed by the commune chief, which he did only selectively," he said.

In Phnom Penh's Sangkat Psah Kandal-II, residents who could not present family books

updated for 1999 or 2000 were denied registration by electoral officials.

"The Sangkat chief invited the residents selectively by sending out individual

letters [for registration] and the registration officials have been considering those

letters as the first requirement," a group of disgruntled residents told monitors.

In most communes in Kong Meas district, Kampong Cham, residents said that local police

had collected their family books a month before the registration began, ostensibly

to number them, but had not returned them.

The organization noted eight other cases in Preah Vihear, Kampong Chhnang, Kandal,

Kampot, Prey Veng and Phnom Penh where absent voters were re-registered at the behest

of the local chief on the basis of their 1998 voter cards.

Armed guards

In Phnom Penh, Co-Minister of the Interior Yu Hockry arrived to register accompanied

by 27 armed guards, which is a breach of the electoral law.

In a similar case officials allowed Minister of Information Lu Lay Sreng to enter

the registration station at Wat Neakvorn with his armed guard. Similar incidents

have occurred in Kampong Cham, Kampong Chhnang and Kandal provinces.

"[These cases are] a clear violation of Chapter 9 of the Commune Election Law

that prohibits the entry of any armed person or anyone other than registrants in

the registration premises," Comfrel's Koul protested.

In a statement issued the following day, Hockry admitted that he had taken his guards

but insisted they had not been armed.

According to the NEC electoral calendar, the preliminary voter list will be posted

between September 20 and 24 and the process will be completed by October 13. Registration

of political candidates begins the following day.

Between September and October, all contentious issues are scheduled to be resolved

through public hearings. At these , provincial and commune election committees will

consider the complaints of the political parties.

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