As Elections Loom, Voter Registration Stalled

A group of election-monitoring NGOs have expressed alarm at what they say are inexplicable delays in starting to rebuild the national voter list, with concerns that the National Election Committee (NEC) may be leaving things too late for the 2017 commune elections.

The new NEC was established in April 2015 with equal representation from the ruling and opposition parties after a landmark deal that ended a year of political turmoil over alleged fraud during the 2013 national election.

Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin, left, from the CPP, and National Election Committee Vice Chairman Kuoy Bunroeun, right, from the CNRP, shake hands after drafting the new election law in March last year. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)
Deputy Prime Minister Bin Chhin, left, from the CPP, and National Election Committee Vice Chairman Kuoy Bunroeun, right, from the CNRP, shake hands after drafting the new election law in March last year. (Siv Channa/The Cambodia Daily)

Creating a new voter list from scratch has since been the NEC’s main task, but Koul Panha, director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said on Tuesday that the “Electoral Reform Alliance”—a coalition of 12 NGOs formed in 2013—had grown worried about the lack of progress.

“For the primary voter registration, they said that would start in May, and then they said ‘No it’s not possible, maybe we can start in July.’ Then they said that’s not possible, maybe August or September,” Mr. Panha said.

“Starting in September could have problems. If we take the assumption that the commune council elections will be in June 2017, and we start the voter registration in September 2016, it will be very tough for the new registration to reach the 10 million eligible voters.”

Neither NEC Chairman Sik Bunhok nor spokesman Hang Puthea could be reached on Tuesday.

However, Khorn Keo Mono, director of the NEC’s communications department, said issues with securing equipment from Europe and writing rules for the registration process have been causing the repeated delays.

“Previously, we planned to register voters from March, but that went past. Then we planned for May…but that would come very soon, and so it would be impossible. So we are planning again for July,” Mr. Keo Mono said.

“If July is still impossible, we would plan for August, and I think August is the most likely,” he added.

Mr. Keo Mono acknowledged that any start date later than August could cut too close to the elections.

“There would still be enough time, but it would be good if registration happens before September so we would be able to have some rest. If we start it in September, we would be quite busy, like we would probably have to work without days off throughout the week,” he said.

Mr. Keo Mono added that an official schedule for registration should be released after the Khmer New Year holiday this month, with the NEC having to meet first to approve the rules and regulations for voter registration.

It is not clear when the coming commune elections will be held. In the past, they have been held in February 2002, April 2007 and June 2012—February or July have been most commonly touted for 2017. The next national election is set for July 2018.

The NEC says it aims to build—from scratch—a completely electronic voter registry using photographs and biometric fingerprint identification in order to avoid the controversies that arose before and after the 2013 election, which utilized a list largely compiled by hand.

The fundamental problems with that list were acknowledged at the time by the old NEC. It noted the presence of an estimated 270,000 “ghost” names—largely duplicate entries—and the potential absence of a further million names on voter rolls.

Since then, the once CPP-dominated election body has been dissolved and replaced with the new one, composed of four members from the CPP and four from the CNRP—as well as the tie-breaking Mr. Puthea, a former election observer selected by both parties.

The chief administrator of the NEC, however, remains unchanged. Secretary-General Tep Nytha, a onetime CPP propaganda apparatchik, was controversially reappointed to the position despite coming under fire for his running of the 2013 vote.

Building the voter list is no cheap task, with the NEC allocated $28 million in this year’s national budget—a 763 percent increase on last year, as well as being pledged about $11 million from the E.U. last year.

E.U. Ambassador George Edgar said on Tuesday he had been kept abreast of voter registration preparations and did not share Mr. Panha’s concerns.

“The E.U. trusts that the NEC will undertake the registration of voters with adequate lead time to generate the voter registry in line with the law and on time for the 2017 elections,” Mr. Edgar wrote in an email.

“Delays in launching this exercise are due to the need to ensure an adequate preparation for the registration process but also the setting up of back-end processing systems to generate an accurate voter registry.”

Yet CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann said the opposition party also was anxious about the repeated delays.

“It’s a big concern,” he said. “They should do this as soon as possible. As you know, the commune elections could start from February or July 2017. Some people still do not have ID cards yet and this process is very slow.”

“This has delayed many times, and we don’t know what is happening with the NEC. We will not interfere in their work, but if they delay again and again, we will seek out information.”

Mr. Panha said the NEC should promptly release a schedule that it can stick to—even if it starts in September. “It’s a large operation to register more than 10 million eligible voters, and it has to follow a schedule.”,

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