THE European Commission (EC) says that there must not be any more technical delays
leading up to voter registration if the July 26 polling date is to be achieved.
Michael Meadowcroft, the co-director of the EC's registration component, said: "The
timetable can be done, but one stresses it ought not to slip any further. If it slips
it will get very tight at the end."
Meadowcroft, a former UK parliamentarian who has helped oversee elections in Palestine,
Bosnia and some African countries, added: "It's very tight, but then again countries
like Cambodia seem to have the ability to pull rabbits out of the hat when it's needed.
"It always amazes me."
However, many observers are doubtful whether the EC, the executive arm of the
European Union, and its Cambodian counterpart the National Election Commission (NEC),
- Set up and train 23 provincial election commissions and 1,700 - perhaps as many
as 2,000 - commune election commissions (PECs and CECs)...
- Hire and train more than 10,000 Khmer registrars and the senior staffers to oversee
- Identify every Cambodian eligible to vote and educate each one to register...
- And advertise they should all do so in a three-day "window of opportunity"
that will be different from commune to commune...
- Collate sequentially numbered registration stubs...
- And handwrite an entire national list of voters for later computerization - all
before May 23.
Most of the work in the above list has not yet started - the PECs, for instance,
won't be formed till March 20, and maybe not till as late as the end of the month.
But electoral officials maintain there is still time to do it all.
The EC says the "cascade effect" of trainers teaching other trainers should
start very soon and last till March 29.
By the following morning - March 30 - these new trainers should be ready to begin
teaching 10,000-plus commune registrars how to do their jobs - and have that done
within 20 days.
However, these 10,000-odd jobs may not even be in existence by then. And the NEC
has only recently appointed a chief of training.
"It is impossible to train 10,000 or more commune registrars in 20 days [from
March 30]," said one source. "Impossible."
Even within the NEC there is doubt that every province can have its voters registered
by May 23. And despite the cautious optimism of the EC, there is widespread talk
among foreign donors about a four-week extension of the July 26 polling date.
A four-week delay - which would put election day well into rainy season, thereby
disenfrachising hundreds, possibly thousands of voters - would however still give
just enough time for a government to be sworn in by Sept 24.
Meadowcroft said that changing the election date is solely the decision of the 11-man
NEC. "I've heard about this four-week [extension] period, but even at the end
of July there is a tricky [weather] climate... I'm not sure it's possible to move
it on a few weeks. You'll have to ask a meteorologist!"
He added that if the NEC does decide that the timetable cannot be managed, its chairman
Chheng Phon will say so, "and if it's later, we'll do it later".
Any serious talk of delays is sure to spark a strong reaction from the CPP, whose
leadership has constantly referred to July 26 as a firm and unchangeable election
Desperate for legitimacy since it expelled First Prime Minister Prince Norodom Ranariddh,
the CPP sent the NEC and the international community a strong electoral message during
its party plenum March 6.
"The elections should be held on July 26 as mandated in the electoral law. Any
postponement... under whatever form would bring negative consequences to the nation,"
The CPP also appealed to the NEC to "perform its job and stick to the [current]
timeframe", and asked donor nations to "speed up the process of their aid
Opposition parties, fearful that the CPP is trying to force the NEC to cut corners,
are already calling for a election delay unless key institutions are immediately
With the backing of 26 MPs, Ranariddh and Sam Rainsy have called for the Constitutional
Council - the long-overdue body charged with judging the constitutionality of laws
and resolving all election disputes - to be formed at least four months before election
"We need the Constitutional Council to function effectively... There must be
an opportunity of appeal. There must be checks and balances," Rainsy said.
"If it is not possible to have this four-month period, then we have to delay
One donor source told the Post that regardless of such political concerns, the entire
registration process - one Meadowcroft describes as being the most important to be
done well to ensure good elections - is even now "buckling out of shape"
due to technical problems.
He said that things were "now happening in parallel with one another",
and that the process was being "concertina'd".
Meadowcroft however seems more optimistic.
He said the NEC is going to recruit the provincial commissions in a week's time.
"The NEC is about to have a meeting with all 23 provincial governors. The governors
will know what needs to be provided," he said.
Around March 20, Meadowcroft said that members of the NEC, plus other officials,
will "go out to all 23 provinces and recruit each PEC on the spot".
At least the NEC may now have the money to do so. Up till this week - though Meadowcroft
didn't think this was the single biggest problem the commissions have had to face
- the NEC was broke.
The Ministry of Interior had given the commission a building worth $750,000 and was
paying for its water and electricity. A local businessman had given around $100,000
worth of furniture on credit. Donors had yet to pay anything.
The reason for this was that the National Assembly had not passed a law allowing
the NEC to open a special bank account.
On March 11 the Assembly finally did so, allowing 18 billion riel to be transferred
from the Treasury into the NEC.
But in the interim, the NEC had been sitting on borrowed chairs, its staff working
but not being paid.
Chheng Phon, who is rumored to be so frustrated with delays that he has threatened
to quit the NEC, told the Post March 9: "The situation in Cambodia can change,
so if I tell you about the election now it would not be constructive. The NEC now
has no money and no cars so we cannot go to work in the provinces. We even have no
water to drink."
The NEC, if it wished, could have borrowed money from a bank to tide it over, but
chose not to.
One informed source said that despite the hiatus in the Assembly passing the amendments,
donors should have been prepared to pay some core money up front to allow the NEC
to get started.
But the foreign donors seem to have bigger headaches to worry about. Intimidation,
executions and various other instances of political skullduggery has widened divisions
between funders: Japan and France are bullishly pressing ahead, while other EU members,
Holland and Denmark especially, seem on the brink of mutiny.
Meadowcroft said that the NEC's lack of money wasn't the biggest problem anyway,
the biggest had instead been "getting to know each other, and getting the form
of working together".
The NEC could cut corners to save time - perhaps, said one source, by accepting from
the government a list of senior appointments it should make. But chairman Chheng
Pong is insisting on transparency. For instance, NEC appointments are being advertised
for the requisite five-day period.
"There are members within the NEC who might want to accept a CPP list. But certainly
not the chairman, nor the vice-chair [Kassie Neou] either," said one source.
The NEC will also refuse to entertain job lists that provincial governors have apparently
prepared, lists that name PEC "applicants" who are obviously politically
The EC's decision to register voters in the communes is considered better than that
of UNTAC in 1993, which decided to register at district level. In theory every person
this year should be no more than 5km away from the registrars.
However, the NEC has found that it will need more than 1,700 teams at commune level
- a figure that the EC is still working on - and perhaps as many as 2,000.
The NEC has consequently asked the EC for another 300 kits containing registration
forms, tear cards, a camera, thumb-printing pads, badges and training manuals, 1,700
of which are now being prepared under an EC tender in Great Britain.
Another 300 kits will cost an extra $500,000.
The NEC has not yet been told whether it will get the extra kits, nor does it know
whether all the kits will be here by the end of March as it wanted in order to get
them out to the communes on time.
Meadowcroft said that 1,700 kits should be enough.
He said that one possibility was that the EC would recruit and train special registration
"flying teams" to help relieve "bottlenecks" in the communes
if and when they occur.
One cynic pointed out that because local teams only had three days to register everyone
in each commune anyway, they were little more than "flying teams" themselves
- and any more would just add to the confusion.
Still another problem is that until the Assembly has passed still more amendments,
the training manuals could not be written. Meadowcroft confirmed this, but added
he did not see any problem because the manuals could be quickly, easily and cheaply
printed and copied here.
The manuals were due to be printed March 13. It was unknown at Post press time whether
anyone had time enough to write the new details into the manuals for this to happen
Meadowcroft said that the CECs - when finally selected and trained - would decide
how best to tell villagers that the registration teams were about to arrive. "They'll
find ways of getting the message across - smoke signals or whatever. We assume they
will know how to reach the people."
He said: "My experience in countries like this is that there's no problems in
the end. I'm always astonished at the way it works.
"There are those who think illiteracy means unintelligence - it doesn't, it
means you haven't held a pen. They're shrewd enough to know what's going on."
The EC and the NEC will be relying heavily on NGOs to spread the message to folks
Meadowcroft said that registration is relatively straightforward. Registrars must
verify a person is at least 18 years old, qualified under the law as a citizen eligible
to vote, then fill in a form, sign and thumbprint a card, and have a photo taken
for a laminated voter card.
"We'll have quality-control people checking on it from the provinces. If registrars
get into bad habits they can be ironed out."
He said that Cambodia won't be as problematic as some countries, such as Malawi where
"hardly anyone had a birth certificate"; or Yemen, where men and women
had to register separately because of religion.
"I would have prefered a six-week [registration period] rather than four, but
most people only [register] in the last few days anyway."
Meadowcroft said the techincal problems of registering voters who may be fearful
to do so was the NEC's responsibility, and one on which they have taken a "forthright"
The EC will observe its own registration component, but Mea-dowcroft stressed that
the observation unit would be completely separate. "The last thing we want is
a suggestion of collusion."
As to the technical problems of registering the thousands of Khmer refugees now in
Thai border camps, Meadowcroft said "if refugees are able to cross back into
Cambodia it is possible they can be registered".
He added that even the homeless in Great Britain could vote as long as the Post Office
could confirm a delivery address "outside such-and-such a door".