Registration for next year’s national elections closed yesterday with a rush of last-minute sign-ups, though two of every three remaining eligible voters still remain unregistered in an atmosphere that observers say raises questions about the legitimacy of next year’s planned national election.
Figures released by the National Election Committee late last night showed that just over 536,000 eligible voters had registered out of a target of 1.6 million. Some 7.8 million of Cambodia’s estimated 9.8 million voters signed up in a previous round of registrations
Som Sorida, deputy secretary-general at the NEC, said the sign-ups were “below what we expected” due to lack of participation from an estimated 1 million migrant workers who are eligible to vote but unregistered. The body, meanwhile, has been repeatedly criticised for doing little to make it easier for migrants to register.
Asked whether the NEC would consider extending the registration period, Sorida said the body could not because it needed time to finalise the list and make corrections.
He also said that registrations had slowed to a trickle in recent weeks, despite a last-minute rush of nearly 36,000 people over the last four days of the registration period, according to NEC figures.
“If we extend registration, the migrant workers still cannot make it,” Sorida said. “So I call it a successful registration period for the 2018 election, I would say.” With the new registrants, 85 percent of eligible voters in Cambodia are now signed up.
Migrant workers, however, will remain underrepresented at the polls after facing a slew of difficulties in returning to Cambodia to register this year, including inability to get time off work, the cost of travel and confusion over registration criteria that changed after the commune elections, drawing complaints from opposition lawmakers.
Soun Sorphea, a Reab commune Election Committee chief in Prey Veng’s Pea Reang district, said out of a hoped-for 1,200 people, less than 450 people registered, despite officials going door to door.
“Most of the people in our province have gone to Thailand or Korea as migrant workers,” Sorphea said. “Some people are very busy with their farming and some are not interested. Personally I think there’s no reason to extend registration. There’s still no time to come and they have no interest in registration or the election.”
Her thoughts were echoed by Tok Nimol, Phsar Doeum Thkov commune Election Committee chief, who said the station had managed to register 218 out of 300 eligible voters, most of whom had just reached voting age.
“Their parents bring them,” Nimol said. “If it were just them, they wouldn’t care. It’s like their parents are doing it for them. They don’t know the value of this work.”
Roughly 80 percent of those who reached 18 this year were registered, according to Sorida.
Some, like university student Setha Moniroth, waited until the last day to register. Moniroth, who walked into the Tonle Bassac Commune Hall less than three hours before close of business, said she is still excited about casting her first ballot.
“It is the very first time for me,” said Moniroth, who said she was too busy with her studies to register earlier. “We are choosing someone that can make our country better.”
Sotheara Yoeurng, legal officer at Comfrel, said he is “partially satisfied, but not fully satisfied” with the results of the voter registration drive.
He pointed out the logistical challenges faced by migrant workers, the difficulty disseminating information due to the government’s closure of several independent radio stations and the discouragement that some potential voters may have felt due to heightened political tension.
He and Sam Kuntheamy, executive director of election watchdog Nicfec, both expressed concern about the legitimacy of the upcoming election with the jailing of opposition leader Kem Sokha and the potential dissolution of the CNRP. A hearing at the Supreme Court on the dissolution will take place on November 16.
“If a big opposition party is absent or not free to participate in the election process, it could affect the legitimacy of the election,” Sotheara said.
Kuntheamy said Nicfec and Comfrel will audit the voter list next month to check for accuracy and continue to keep an eye on political developments.
“I’m very concerned,” Kuntheamy said. “We will see what the political situation is after November 16 and we will talk to the election NGOs together . . . But we cannot say anything until we have a meeting and decide together.”