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Why the drop in voter numbers?

Why the drop in voter numbers?

Countries with more developed democracies have trouble getting half of the electorate

out to vote on election day. July 27 saw around 81 percent cast their ballot here.

That means around 1.1 million people were registered to vote, but did not.

So is that good or bad? That depends on whom one asks. The deputy chairman of the

National Election Committee (NEC), Nge Chhay Leang, feels the lower turnout from

1998-when 93 percent voted-is a sign that democracy is actually developing.

"This happens everywhere in the world. I think it is normal," he said.

But his optimism is not shared by all. Some election monitors fear that declining

voter turnout will slow the country's democratic development.

"In Cambodia, where democracy is still weak, it is dangerous," said Hang

Puthea of Nicfec, an election monitoring NGO.

"Democracy will not improve in the next 20 years if the percentage of voters

continues to decrease."

The lowest turnout figures were seen in the western provinces. Complete figures issued

July 31 from Comfrel, another election monitoring NGO, showed Pailin scored worst

with 64 percent. Oddar Meanchey had 66 percent and Koh Kong 69 percent. Of the larger

provinces, Banteay Meanchey brought up the rear at 74 percent.

Thun Saray of Comfrel felt that a lack of voter education combined with the need

to seek jobs far from home were key reasons why the western provinces in particular

fell behind. He also feels some may have become disillusioned with politics.

"Some of the people lost enthusiasm for the election process," he said.

"They voted in 1993 and 1998, but ten years later they haven't seen any changes

in their lives."

Pheap, a 39-year-old crewmember of a merchant ship, agreed. He was in Phnom Penh

to register and to vote, but felt there was little to choose from, so did not vote.

"I think the three main parties are the same," he said.

Economic migration within the country also prevented some from voting. Many moved

to Phnom Penh or other cities for jobs and business opportunities, but were unable

to return to their home communes to vote. Either they could not afford the trip or

decided it was more important to take care of their businesses. There is no absentee

ballot system.

"I did not go to vote because I was very busy," said Phorn, a 19-year old

ice seller at Boeung Keng Kong I market. She and her family were registered in Pursat,

but were unable to get back on election day.

Hang Puthea is concerned that people are putting their businesses over their rights.

"I don't want to hear people say that I don't want to vote because I am busy,"

he said.

He added that he was worried lower voter turnout would lead to problems in counting

and seat allocation. But the NEC's Chhay Leang said he was confident that would not

happen.

"The decrease of voters won't affect the amount of seats in each place because

the number of voters for each seat will be considered based on the amount of valid

ballots only," he said.

Hoy Sochivanny heads the ability building department at local NGO Action on Disability

and Development, which ran a team of 200 disabled observers, predominantly in Kampong

Speu. She said they reported that many farmers did not know what time polls closed,

and tried to vote after stations shut at 3 pm.

Administrative problems also dogged the registration process, and some were unable

to find their names on the voter lists. That happened to Veasna, a 30-year-old police

officer and taxi driver, who said he wanted to vote "for change".

"I voted in 1993 and 1998. I struggled to get to many stations to find my name,"

he said. "From the present government, there are no improvements. The salaries

for teachers, policemen and soldiers are still too low."

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