The US-backed National Democratic Institute in Cambodia yesterday called on the National Election Committee to clarify its rules on disseminating voter registration information, following complaints from opposition parties that authorities were blocking them from doing so.
The call for clarification comes a day after SRP lawmaker Mu Sochua was stopped by authorities from speaking at a gathering in Phnom Penh intended to encourage a group of elderly women to vote in next year’s commune elections.
At a news conference yesterday, the NEC said that Ms Sochua was violating the election law by calling for the public to register to vote. According to the NEC, Ms Sochua was a recognizable figure and, as “everyone knows her” as representing the SRP, she was influencing the registration process.
But election monitoring groups said that there was nothing in the law to prevent anyone from encouraging people to register to vote.
“Opposition parties have been blocked from distributing voter registration materials, including materials that [the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia] and NDI developed,” NDI Resident Country Director Laura Thornton said in an e-mail.
More than 300 representatives from the CPP, the Sam Rainsy Party, the Human Rights Party, the Norodom Ranariddh Party and Funcinpec took part in a eight-day NDI training program last month on disseminating information related to voter registration for the upcoming commune elections.
During the program, Ms Thornton said, the NEC had “explicitly said at the start of our training program that party involvement in voter registration was not only legal, but welcome.”
“Parties have also been prevented from using NEC spots on mobile loudspeakers,” she said, referring to recorded messages relaying details on the registration process that were created and distributed to the parties by the NEC.
Ms Thornton added that she was unaware of any law that “prohibits parties in Cambodia from discussing their party or publishing their logo,” or any law that would prevent the dissemination of voter registration material.
During a news conference held yesterday in Phnom Penh, NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha said that authorities stopped Ms Sochua on Monday while disseminating voter registration information because she was a recognizable figure among the public.
“Mu Sochua is a lawmaker, so everyone knows her when she hands out leaflets in the public,” he said. “So the election does not allow her to hand out leaflets.”
“If there are many parties going from one door to another and using a microphone, then what is going to happen?” he said.
Mr Nytha also said that information dissemination by parties contravened demonstration laws.
“The SRP have violated the demonstration law when they distributed [voter information] cards in public,” Mr Nytha said, referring to printed material handed out by the SRP on Monday which read “Register to Vote to Ensure a Good Future for the Youth,” on one side and “Register to Vote to Protect the Land and be Strong and Healthy,” on the reverse. The cards bear no political logo or name.
“It means they were campaigning,” Mr Nytha said of the information cards.
By law, political parties are not allowed to actively campaign for the June 3 commune elections until one month before the polling starts.
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia, said that his organization had also received reports from opposition parties being prevented from handing out non-partisan information to potential voters.
“It is mainly in the bigger communes where local authorities are disturbing the dissemination of information,” said Mr Panha, adding that it was up to the NEC to “play a role, to do something and not obstruct activity.”
“There is no law to distinguish NGOs from political parties” when it comes to giving out this information, said Mr Panha, adding that he believed opposition parties were facing greater opposition in the field than representatives of the CPP.
Mr Panha called on the NEC to operate “a policy of encouragement, not censorship.”
SRP spokesman Yim Sovann said that many people were reporting back from the provinces that they were having difficulty getting access to information on the documentation required for registration.
CPP lawmaker Cheam Yeap said that the CPP “respects the rule of law of the NEC,” and said the CPP had “never been stopped by authorities” whilst making visits relating to commune election registration.
A leaked diplomatic cable issued by the US Embassy in Phnom Penh in 2008, and released by the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks this month, quoted a UN official in Phnom Penh as saying that due to the voter registration process, the 2007 commune elections were likely missing thousands of rightful voters.
According to the cable, the UN Development Program’s chief election adviser in Cambodia at that time, Aamir Arain, suspected that at least 250,000 names purged from the register may have actually belonged to eligible people.
“He suspected at least 250,000 names slated to be erased were of eligible voters. He could not say how many of those 250,000 might be dual-registered and thus still have the right to cast a ballot on election day. But he characterized the evidence used to erase names as weak and used the phrase ‘calculated manipulation’ to describe the efforts of local officials in the process,” the cable said.
Mr Nytha of the NEC has denied the claim in the embassy cable that eligible voters had been left off the register at the time of the last commune election, and the UNDP has yet to comment on the matter.