On Monday, Prime Minister Hun Sen encouraged Cambodians to register near their workplace, rather than their native province, as is now permitted under the 2015 Election Law.
As the National Election Committee prepares to launch its three-month voter registration drive in September, it’s a change that has been welcomed on both sides of the aisle in Cambodia, a country where millions leave their homes in search of work, and face lengthy, and costly, trips to return to their villages.
But with the Kingdom’s workers – particularly its 600,000-strong garment sector and its booming construction industry – focused heavily in Phnom Penh and other major population centres, the shift could have ramifications for the opposition on election day, particularly the national ballot in 2018.
Analysts and observers told the Post the arrangement could see young opposition-aligned workers “waste” their vote in the capital, long an opposition stronghold, while allowing the ruling Cambodian People’s Party to hold sway in its rural heartland, in what would be a skewed electoral landscape.
This is because, despite ballooning urbanisation, the capital and other major population centres have not seen a corresponding increase in assembly seats.
“In the bigger constituencies, the opposition would get the majority but not all the seats, because in the second round of allocation, some will go to the CPP – maybe two-thirds to the opposition and one third to the CPP,” said a political analyst, who wished to remain anonymous.
“The opposition [could have] many votes where they don’t need [them] and not enough where they do; they have to be very careful with this.”
Phnom Penh has accounted for 12 seats since 1998, when the population was officially just short of 1 million. In 2013, National Election Committee statistics put its population at 1.3 million. Newer tallies have estimated at least 1.7 million.
Estimating that about 80 per cent of workers are internal migrants, labour advocate Moeun Tola said the population boom would see many votes “wasted”.
“I think people should go to register in their commune,” he said. “It would cost some money, but if you just register in Phnom Penh and vote in Phnom Penh, it will not effect change in the election.”
Under the old election law, seats were supposed to be recalculated every mandate based on population, though this was largely ignored. However, the new law has scrapped the distribution formula entirely and rigidly fixed the seats.
The only changes were two new seats granted to Preah Sihanouk province and the transfer of eight of Kampong Cham’s original 18 to the new province of Tbong Khmum.
Koul Panha, executive director of election watchdog Comfrel, slammed the arrangement, which he called one of the most controversial provisions of the new legislation.
“It’s really politically motivated and it’s not fair for the value of the voters,” Panha said. “There should not be a big gap; some constituencies need 100,000 voters per seat, some only need 30,000 per seat . . . This is not fair for the voters and maybe not fair to some political parties also.”
Speaking yesterday, NEC spokesman and member Hang Puthea confirmed that votes would count where people are registered and not in their home provinces. However, those wanting to register for a different address than the one on their identity card need to obtain a residency certificate from a commune councillor. This also requires a witness from the commune, he said.
Puthea said questions about the fairness of seat allocation were outside the body’s remit.
“We are the NEC, we work by the law. If the law decides to do like this, we have to implement by the law,” he said. “To talk about this, maybe you [should] ask the assembly or political parties who have an agreement between them.”
Though allowing workers to register away from their native provinces may hurt the CNRP, it was, in fact, the opposition that pushed to loosen residency requirements during the post-2013 election negotiations that gave birth to the new law, CNRP spokesman Eng Chhay Eang said yesterday.
Eang said that “who gains and who loses” was secondary to empowering more people to vote, noting that where they register “depends on them”.
Cambodian People’s Party spokesman Sous Yara, meanwhile, dismissed any suggestion of a strategy to increase the party’s chances of winning rural provinces. “Whatever we do, we do by the law,” Yara said.
Legal expert Billy Tai said while it was impossible to predict the electorate’s voting behaviour, the fact that urban migrant workers would not return to their villages to talk politics with their families and friends could have an impact, though the boom in social media could counteract this to a degree.
Noting it spared workers a costly trip, Ath Thorn, president of the Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers’ Democratic Union, said he believed more rather than fewer of his members would choose to register near their workplace.
Given Phnom Penh was now home to countless migrant workers from across the country, Thorn said its number of National Assembly seats should reflect this. “The parliament should calculate the [number of] seats [in terms of] where people are living,” he said.
Political analyst Ou Virak said that while keeping migrant workers in the cities and away from the provinces would likely benefit the CPP, getting more people to vote meant the new law was still an improvement.
“The next thing should be to reallocate the seats to make sure it’s proportional, but I still support it regardless,” he said.