Election Officials Brace for Pchum Ben Rush

Trapaing Thom Khang Tbong Commune, Takeo province – Commune offices around the country are bracing for a surge in voter registrations over the Pchum Ben holiday that could become a make-or-miss moment in building the foundation for upcoming elections.

After nearly a month of registrations, the National Election Committee reported on Tuesday that 3.5 million people—36.7 percent of eligible voters—have had their thumbprints scanned, photographs taken and personal details entered into a new digital voter list that’s being prepared in response to problems of missing and duplicate names in the 2013 elections.

Residents of Takeo province’s Trapaing Thom Khang Tbong embark on a march to encourage locals to register to vote. (Michael Dickison/The Cambodia Daily)
Residents of Takeo province’s Trapaing Thom Khang Tbong embark on a march to encourage locals to register to vote. (Michael Dickison/The Cambodia Daily)

The latest tally marks steady progress in registering residents around the country, but officials say the Pchum Ben holiday period is crucial to efforts to enfranchise millions of migrant workers in cities and neighboring countries who may want to vote in their hometowns, which they visit only during major holidays.

In this rural commune—about 15 minutes down a red dirt road from National Road 3 and halfway between Phnom Penh and Kampot—about 100 volunteers marched on Tuesday with E.U.-funded public awareness posters in an effort to encourage returning residents to register.

Roughly 2,000 of the commune’s 6,000 eligible voters have registered so far, said commune chief Sann Koeun said. The remainder are mostly migrant workers and their elderly parents who have been waiting for their children to come home.

“People are already coming from the cities,” Mr. Koeun said. “But if more people come to register during the three days of Pchum Ben, we won’t be able to do it because we don’t have enough officers.”

Registration numbers are similar in many of the more than 1,600 communes across Cambodia, according to registration observers. The deadline for registering for the June 2017 commune elections is November 29.

The voter registration office here is a long table set under an ornate roof across the road from a village pagoda. Three officers guide residents through each step of the process, which involves new digital equipment funded mostly by the E.U. and Japan.

The team leader, Khim Sok, 48, a primary school teacher, said registrations had slowed since the initial rush and on some days, as few as five people dropped by. But he said he had been preparing his officers to “work hard to respond to the people” during the coming festival.

On most days, volunteers from the CPP, CNRP and the Committee for Free and Fair Elections (Comfrel) observe registrations for irregularities, Mr. Koeun said. According to deputy Tram Kak district police chief Uon Sokhom, two police officers have also been monitoring the makeshift registration office, as well as 14 others set up in the district.

Ork Kop, a 60-year-old farmer and CPP voter who was in the path of Tuesday’s public awareness march, said he and his family had already registered to vote. He glanced over a glossy poster he had been handed with bemusement.

“We heard about it through local officials,” Mr. Kop said.

Around the corner, farmer Leng Srey, 45, said the village chief had visited her earlier in the month to let her know about the process. “My children in Phnom Penh are coming home this evening,” Ms. Srey said. “I will register with them soon.”

Khien Chhun, the commune’s second deputy chief, said that even though it seemed many were already aware of the voter drive, it was critical to push home the message this week.

“After Pchum Ben I have no hope that we will be able to interest people in this,” Mr. Chhun said.

The march’s organizers, the People Center for Development and Peace, said they were replicating the campaign across 200 communes in 10 provinces with a particular focus on youth to help spread the message. Yong Kim Eng, the organization’s president, said things had run smoothly—so far.

“I’m concerned as well,” Mr. Kim Eng said. “We will wait to see in October if the process is still working well.”

The next step would be to send volunteers door-to-door and get people registered in any laggard households, Mr. Eng said.

National Election Committee spokesman Hang Puthea said he expected a surge of registrations throughout the country during Pchum Ben. But he also noted that migrant workers have the choice to register where they currently live rather than their hometowns.

“The law lets them make that decision,” Mr. Puthea said.

For the opposition party, such registrations are a political issue. The first priority is to make sure everyone is registered, said CNRP spokesman Yim Sovann, but opposition supporters living in the capital are encouraged to vote in

their rural hometowns “because

Phnom Penh is our stronghold,” Mr. Sovann said.

“It’s important that the offices must be open and ready,” he said. “We will wait and see.”

Koul Panha, executive director of Comfrel, said he hoped migrant workers would be given enough time off to both participate in Pchum Ben festivities with their families and register to vote.

“If there is a lot of demand for registration during the public holiday, migrant workers should be allowed to have extended time,” Mr. Panha said.

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