The government’s election authority has advised the Interior Ministry to help commune officials register security personnel, including soldiers, in communes other than where they live or are based, entrenching a practice the opposition fears the government could use to rig next year’s commune elections and the national poll in 2018.
The election law says anyone registering to cast a ballot must “have an address/residence in the commune where the person shall vote.”
The ruling CPP and opposition CNRP have agreed that the clause should extend to the temporary residences of people such as garment workers who work long-term far away from their permanent, home communities. But the CNRP complained to the National Election Committee (NEC) a few months ago that even that broader interpretation was being overstepped by soldiers registering in communes away from both their family homes and military bases.
The NEC agreed that commune officials should not have granted them residency status on the basis of their claimed irregular work on local plantations, but let them stay registered, arguing that they may end up guarding polling stations in the commune come Election Day in June.
In a letter to Interior Minister Sar Kheng dated Monday, the NEC says both soldiers and police can continue to be registered outside the communes of their bases so long as they are on a “long-term” mission in that commune up to Election Day or will be stationed there to guard a polling station on the day itself.
The CNRP, worried the government will use the practice to fill opposition strongholds with CPP votes, has called the NEC’s lax interpretation of a person’s place of work and residence a “loophole.”
Koul Panha, who heads the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, agreed that the NEC was misusing the law.
“I think it [goes] beyond the election law,” he said. “The law says nothing that allows the soldier to register where he is on a mission…. It says you have to register in the commune where you are living.”
The NEC is urging the ministry to help commune officials confirm the residency of soldiers and police in those cases so they can register away from their bases.
Contacted on Wednesday, NEC spokesman Hang Puthea insisted the practice was not in breach of the election law.
“This point is legal because they get only one vote where they are,” he said, adding that soldiers guarding polling stations could otherwise miss their chance to vote. “The voting stations will open at 7 a.m., so if they wait to vote at their home…it will be too late.”
Mr. Puthea said the NEC had blocked some soldiers who had been given incorrect residency documents from registering in Preah Vihear province—one of three provinces the opposition has complained about. But he said those soldiers who had already registered would stay on the voter list.
“We will not take it back,” he said, declining to elaborate on the reasons. “It’s over.”
(Additional reporting by Zsombor Peter)