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Lagging education leaving voters in the dark

Lagging education leaving voters in the dark

IF VOTER intimidation is the disease of Election '98, then voter education is at

least a medicine, if not a total cure.

However, not enough is being done to solve the problem, lamented a National Election

Committee (NEC) member, who would only comment on condition of anonymity.

Voters must be told of the safeguards that have been put into place to ensure a secret

ballot, he said, adding that some election officials would rather look the other

way than deal with the problem.

Arming voters with the right information could nullify the pressure many of them

are feeling from aggressive political party officials, he said.

But so far, voter education has not lived up to expectations. Voters were not effectively

educated during registration, one foreign election worker complained, and the prospect

for proper education during the campaign and balloting also looks dim.

Education has been carried out in two ways: by the NEC, helped by donors financing

the election; and independently by NGOs being financed by donors such as the United

States.

The NEC is charged with coordinating the entire education effort, but NGOs are complaining

that it has been lackluster in helping with their programs.

NGO educators running into difficulties with provincial and commune leaders have

not been supported enough by the NEC, NGO officials said.

"The NEC has not been very helpful, and many times the local authorities have

been difficult," said one election worker from the Coalition for Free and Fair

Elections (COFFEL).

"Sometimes the local authorities told us we could only observe registration

and not educate the voters. Once they find out we are neutral and can't be of any

use to them, then they lose interest in working with us."

And while person-to-person education has often been stymied by local governments,

voter education through the mass media has run into national government roadblocks.

Some NGOs organized televised candidate debates, but the Center for Social Development

(CSD) has complained that government-run television stations have censored their

content and kept their programs off the air as much as possible.

"There is strict control for the program [including] political parties' members

or individuals whose views differ from those of the government," according to

a CSD statement titled "Challenges faced by NGOs in the use of media".

National television stations have reduced broadcasting time allotted to NGOs from

one to two hours a session to a mere 15 to 20 minutes, the release stated.

Fees for air time were also raised by 20% for existing NGO-produced programs, and

the CSD was informed that the cost of airing any new programs would double.

During the campaign, due to begin June 25, the election law and NEC regulations state

that state-run media must broadcast all NEC-approved information relating to the

election free of charge. Yet NGOs have had such a hard time getting their programs

aired that many are skeptical of whether the NEC will approve their programs for

broadcasting.

"We have eight to nine hours of tape ready and we're not sure if it will ever

see the light of day," one CSD worker said. "At this point we are just

going to give it to the NEC and see if they will use it, but we don't even know if

they will look at it."

Responding to the NGOs' complaints, the NEC member in change of training and civic

education, You Kan, told the Post that education during the registration period may

not have been perfect, but it appeared to be adequate.

"It's hard to say. During registration we think we maybe reached 50% [of potential

voters]," You Kan said.

"But so far [in the third week of registration] 80% have registered, so we know

people have become interested in this election."

And despite any shortcomings during registration, the NEC member said he is optimistic

that education during the campaign will be a success.

The NEC is aware of voter intimidation, he said, and has received a general message

from the electorate that people do not feel safe to vote for whichever party they

want.

"We have heard that the people do not trust the secrecy [of the vote], so we

have produced material showing them that it will be free and that no one can stop

you or force you to vote," You Kan said. "We will also tell them that no

one has the right to take a registration card from anybody."

COFFEL Executive Director Lay Sovathara agreed that anti-intimidation messages will

be the most important ones to get across to the voters if the election result is

to truly reflect the will of the people.

"Only the NEC can guarantee the ability of the people to vote freely,"

he said.

Pre-registration and registration education was mostly funded by the European Union,

according to You Kan, and the NEC is hopeful that approval will soon be given to

a request made to the UN Development Program (UNDP) for $433,000 to fund education

during the campaign and balloting.

A UNDP official told the Post that the UNDP is "ready and willing" to finance

voter education through its open trust fund for the election, but he said the NEC

has yet to submit its final education curriculum.

"I'm hoping that the information will be ready by the end of the month so there

will be a three- to four-week slot for education," the UNDP official said.

You Kan said there are plans for posters, leaflets and voters' handbooks for the

campaign, as well as television and radio spots.

The CSD told the Post that it is working on a voters' guide that will summarize the

platforms of every party for voters.

Customized for each province so voters will only see the parties that are contesting

in their area, the USAID-funded guides will be distributed to each polling station.

A total of 300,000 are expected to be printed, about 25 per polling station.

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