The CPP’s extensive network of neighborhood cell leaders has been collecting the voter registration cards of party recruits and recording their identification numbers, voters and party members said this week.
The practice, an apparent extension of the party’s aggressive and controversial “thumbprint” membership campaign earlier this year, has raised the concern of election watchdog groups and drawn accusations of vote-buying and intimidation from opposition leaders.
Several high-ranking CPP leaders contacted this week denied the party is collecting registration numbers, saying the reports are part of an opposition smear campaign.
“The CPP does not do that. Registration cards are the private property of the people. Nobody can touch that,” CPP Chief of Cabinet Ith Sam Heng said Tuesday.
“I think the opposition is making this rumor to try to make the CPP look bad,” he added.
But independent interviews in and around Phnom Penh this week turned up several voters whose cards had been taken up. And a CPP neighborhood cell leader said that his commune chief told him last week to gather up the registration cards of the 19 people whose votes he is responsible for delivering.
“He didn’t tell me anything about why, but just told me we want to know how many CPP members have registered and to provide those people with donations,” the cell leader, who lives in Phnom Penh’s Chamkar Mon district, said Wednesday.
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He said he collected the cards and gave them to the commune chief, who returned them a few hours later. “The people were not upset when I took their cards because I told them after I returned them they would get donations.”
In some cases, local government officials, whose ranks are dominated by the CPP, collect the voter cards personally. One 35-year-old motorbike driver from Kandal’s Koh Thom district said Wednesday that his village chief came to his house to take his card.
“The CPP people told me they wanted to copy the card to find out how many people were registered in the village and also to give me aid,” the taxi driver said while waiting for a fare at Deum Kor market in Phnom Penh.
It is unclear how widespread the practice is, but NGOs and watchdog groups have reported instances in at least four provinces, including the heavily populated Kompong Cham and Kandal.
Opposition politician Sam Rainsy filed a complaint with the National Election Committee on Tuesday along with a statement from a teacher in Krapeu Haa village, Takhmau, saying her boss had collected the voter identification cards from all the teachers in the school.
“This is a form of intimidation,” Sam Rainsy said Wednesday. “They circulate false information that they can check whether people…whose card number they have taken actually vote for [the CPP].
Real Sopheat, an officer in the NEC legal department, said an inquiry is underway. “I sent two people to investigate,” she said, adding the NEC would take action based on the investigation’s outcome.
It was unclear Wednesday what, if any, electoral regulations the collecting of voter registration cards and numbers would violate in itself. And those who said their cards had been taken also said they were later returned, though it took a few days in some cases.
An adviser to the NEC said that recording the voter identification numbers of party members could be seen as a legitimate registration drive of the kind common in most democracies.
The dominant party in the current coalition government, the CPP claims up to 4 million members and has extensive grass-roots organization. High-ranking CPP officials earlier this year confirmed that the party was reactivating its “cell system,” in which a cell leader in each neighborhood is responsible for recruiting about 10 people, making sure they register to vote and encouraging them to vote CPP in the July 26 scheduled elections.
By itself, the card-collecting could be seen as a somewhat zealous extension of the cell system.
Still, leaders of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel), an independent elections monitoring group, said they find the practice suspicious. Comfrel observers have reported card-collecting in Kandal and Kompong Cham—two of the countries most populous provinces, which have more seats in the National Assembly than other provinces.
“There is no ethical reason the authorities would be doing this,” said Leav Sokhoeun, Comfrel monitoring coordinator. “It seems like it could be something to trick people, to make them think that if they vote for another party, [the CPP] will know.”
Men Makara, the Comfrel monitoring chief for Kandal province, said he has seen CPP officials in Boeng Khyaang commune manning up tables just outside the registration centers. As newly registered voters emerge from the centers, the CPP official calls them over, takes their card, records the number and then returns it.
He added that he has received several reports from Comfrel monitors in Kandal that local authorities are going to people’s homes collecting cards.
“We worry about this,” Men Makara said. “We don’t know why they are doing this.”
Another elections observer, who said his agency is investigating reports of card-collecting in Takeo, Kampot, Stung Treng, Kandal and Phnom Penh, said the puzzling thing about recording voter identification numbers is that the registration rolls will, by law, be made available to all political parties once registration is complete later this month.
“I can’t find a logical reason why they are doing this, frankly….The information is public already,” he said, adding that the cards were all returned to voters in the reports he has heard.
“The one theme is intimidation,” he said, adding “I can’t think of any other reason.”
Svay Sitha, an adviser to the CPP cabinet, vehemently denied the reports of the party collecting registration cards and numbers.
“We do not have such idea to do such a dirty thing….We wish for this to be a free and fair election,” he said.
Asked why so many voters and even CPP members have said the practice is ongoing, Svay Sitha blamed opposition party tricks.
“We have learned that some parties have a dirty plan to destroy the election process by tarnishing the name of the CPP,” he said. “I think it is a well-orchestrated plan by some parties that know beforehand that they will not have the upper hand in the election.”
An earlier CPP membership campaign, in which village chiefs and other local officials asked potential voters to fix their thumbprints to oaths to vote for the party, came under fire last month from the UN’s special envoy for human rights.
Thomas Hammarberg said the thumbprint campaign amounted to intimidation of voters and endangers the “free and fair” atmosphere necessary for elections to take place.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara and Saing Soenthrith)