A crucial three-month voter registration period will finish today with about 7.7 million citizens newly signed up to a digital voter databank, paving the way for independent audits of the rolls, commune elections next year and fresh lobbying to enfranchise workers who live abroad ahead of national elections in 2018.
The effort that began on September 1 has been far bigger than previous registration drives undertaken for recent elections. In 2011, before the last commune elections, about 900,000 new voters were registered, adding to a list that had been built up over several years.
That list had 9.2 million voters—1.5 million more than the new list—but also contained 4 percent more names than estimated eligible voters in the country at the time, including hundreds of thousands of repeated names and “ghost names” without corresponding voters.
As a result, it was widely criticized for being at the root of irregularities in the 2013 national election, which was narrowly won by the ruling CPP and sparked an overhaul of the election system.
There were accusations that the National Election Commission and the ruling party “had cheated with 1.2 to 1.3 million names,” said Sok Eysan, a CPP spokesman. This time, “we have used modern technology —it can’t have double names, wrong names or lost names,” he said. “So I think it is better than previous voter rolls that we had registered by hand.”
Mr. Eysan said the new list should contribute to free and fair elections in the country over the next two years.
“We cannot judge an election until after the election—when we can evaluate it—but we’re optimistic that voter registrations are more accurate,” he said.
Yim Sovann, a spokesman for the opposition CNRP, agreed that the new list would likely be more accurate than previous voter rolls, but cautioned that it was only one part of ensuring fair elections.
About 2 million of the 9.7 million total eligible voters have not been registered, including more than 1 million migrant workers living abroad, Mr. Sovann said.
Moreover, the government’s crackdowns on the opposition—the courts have aggressively pursued and jailed numerous politicians and activists—were disrupting politics in the country, he said.
“Free and fair elections aren’t just about the voter list, but also, for example, the political atmosphere,” he said. “If the opposition party leader cannot fully participate in political activities, and there are accusations, exilings and imprisonments , how can it be a free and fair election?”
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said one of the next steps was auditing the voter list—set to be provisionally released in January—by allowing outside groups and individuals to verify names against actual residents.
“If there are many errors it will affect the election. So we’ll need to check,” Mr. Panha said.
The group will also lobby the election commission and lawmakers on enfranchising Cambodians living abroad, as well as monks and prisoners who are detained but not yet convicted, two additional groups that were marginalized during this registration period, Mr. Panha said.