Voter turnout was lower Sunday than in the 1998 national elections despite 1 million more registered voters, a drop that election monitors are attributing to political intimidation, registration problems and an alleged scheme to offer CPP voters first priority at the polls, officials said Monday.
Eighty-three percent of Cambodia’s 6.3 million registered voters cast ballots Sunday, 10 percentage points less than the voter turnout for the 1998 elections, when 5.39 million Cambodians were registered to vote, according to National Election Committee spokesman Leng Sochea.
Of the 5.19 million Cambodians registered to vote in the 2002 commune elections, 86.7 percent cast ballots.
Funcinpec candidate and Minister of Women’s Affairs Mu Sochua said she was one of many victims of a voting scheme instigated by the CPP to keep potential opposition supporters away from the polls.
Days before the election, CPP village chiefs in possession of voting lists allegedly distributed numbered cards to CPP voters ensuring them top priority at the polls, Mu Sochua said, citing reports from several party agents who monitored the elections.
Mu Sochua accused NEC officials of working in league with the CPP to push possible non-CPP voters to the back of voting lines.
“Village chiefs and polling stations had to know the system so that [CPP supporters] would be given priority,” she said Monday. Many people went home without voting due to time constraints or physical impairments, such as age, she said. Mu Sochua said she voted after demanding fair treatment.
Leng Sochea said he had not heard of Mu Sochua’s complaints and insisted that NEC officials upheld a “come first, vote first” policy. Ministry of Information Secretary of State Khieu Kanharith, a member of the CPP, challenged critics to offer proof of a CPP-NEC fraternity.
The first-come, first-serve election policy was practiced at most polling stations, although many Cambodians did not line up to vote because they could not find their names on voting lists, monitors reported Monday.
Pheng Sieng Heng, 30, said she searched almost an hour for her name at a Tumnop Tuk commune, Chamkar Mon district, polling station but gave up without voting.
“The NEC officials helped me to cross-check my name card with the list, but we couldn’t find it. They suggested I find another polling station, but I had so little time,” she said.
The hundreds of Cambodians who unsuccessfully scoured voting lists throughout the country were likely victims of impatience, registration confusion or a poorly organized voting system, said Thun Saray, an official with the Committee for Free and Fair Elections.
Cambodians registered to vote in the 1998 and 2002 elections were required to confirm their status with the NEC between January and February 2003, a fact unknown to many hopeful voters, he said.
With more than 1 million more voters registered this year than in the 2002 commune elections, Thun Saray said many voters were relocated to new polling sites.
“We can keep only 700 voters in one polling station, so we had to move the rest,” he said.
Opposition lawmaker Son Chhay was involved in a heated standoff with commune election committee officials at the Stung Meanchey polling station until midnight on Monday because of the committee’s refusal to sign official documents acknowledging poll results.
Commune committee officials claimed they were unable to sign the verification forms as vote results forms from each of the polling offices were accidentally sealed inside bags containing actual ballot papers.
Son Chhay alleged the committee had purposely stalled verification in a bid to tamper with the opposition’s landslide win in Stung Meanchey district. Sam Rainsy Party observers said the opposition won 8,233 votes, the CPP 4,298 and Funcinpec 3,078 in Stung Meanchey.
Although Election Day passed without any serious incidents, the Neutral, Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections observed election irregularities with national, provincial and commune election committees, said Nicfec President Heng Puthea.
Nicfec monitors observed problems with the printing of at least 300 ballots in several Takeo province polling stations. At least 50 reports of voter intimidation instigated by commune officials also were fielded by Nicfec, Heng Puthea said.
Vote-buying during the election was one of the more commonly reported problems, he said, adding that Nicfec received reports of 70 such cases from across the country during and before the election.
Problematic ballots also were found in Phnom Penh and Svay Rieng province, observers said Monday.
In Phnom Penh, NEC officials discovered at least one ballot without serial numbers and another with a faded NEC logo, Leng Sochea said. Both ballots, cast for the CPP, are being disputed.
An international election observer in Svay Rieng reported that ballot papers without serial numbers were slipped into the mix at one polling station. Election officials at another polling station did not reconcile their voting lists with used ballots, although three witnesses signed a form declaring the ballots reconciled after promising to compare the lists on Monday, the observer said.
More than 100 Vietnamese voters were prevented from voting or were intimidated at the Wat Champa polling station in Kien Svay district, Kandal province, Sunday.
A raucous group of more than 50 voters gathered within the pagoda grounds and yelled throughout the day that Vietnamese had no right to vote in Cambodia’s election. They said they feared the Vietnamese would support Prime Minister Hun Sen.
Demonstrating Kien Svay district villagers also prevented 146 Vietnamese families from voting at three polling stations in Kho Phi Thom commune and Mongkol Champa commune, the human rights group Adhoc reported Monday.
(Reporting by Kate Woodsome, David Kihara, Phann Ana and Kevin Doyle)