US Ambassador Kent Wiedemann Thursday called on the National Election Committee to extend voter registration “until all who want to [vote] get to register.”
NEC Secretary-General Im Suosdey, who met with Wiedemann Thursday afternoon, said some registration stations may remain open past Sunday if they have registered far fewer voters than expected.
“We will not know until we receive the reports” from the stations. Those reports will include voters who register between now and Sunday, he said.
Registration was to have ended Thursday, but the NEC this week extended the sign-up period to Sunday. Wiedemann commended the NEC for the extension, but said he feared it would not be enough.
“The biggest test of fairness of any registration drive is simple: Did everyone who wanted to register get to register? At this point, you would have to say no,” Wiedemann said.
The NEC’s latest figures indicate about 75 percent of eligible voters have registered nationwide, compared to more than 90 percent who voted in Cambodia’s last two elections, in 1993 and 1998.
Assorted problems have plagued this year’s registration process, including lack of money, poor publicity, and strict or confusing rules set up by the NEC.
Wiedemann noted that this is the first national election organized by Cambodia with little foreign assistance, and said the NEC is doing more work with less money than in previous elections. About $15 million pledged by donor nations is still scheduled to arrive before the February 2002 election.
The ambassador pointed out that if voters cannot get registered, an influx of cash later will make no difference.
“Now is when it counts,” he said. “The registration process is when you have the greatest chance of skewing the election.”
Wiedemann suggested the Cambodian government consider transferring money from elsewhere in the budget to cover the cash-flow problem until donor money arrives.
The US will spend about $6 million on the election, distributing it through The Asia Foundation, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute, Wiedemann said.
The money will fund voter education efforts and post-election training for the new commune councils, as well as election monitoring by Cambodian non-governmental organizations and human rights groups.
Earlier Thursday, parliamentarian Sam Rainsy led several hundred members of his opposition party in a march from the National Assembly to the NEC.
“Extend the registration period for one month!” read banners and signs carried by marchers. “A registration center must remain open in every commune!”
Noting that registering 75 percent of 6.2 million potential voters leaves about 1.5 million unregistered, Sam Rainsy said that it will be impossible to register the rest in just three extra days.
He said at least 30,000 people in Phnom Penh have been unable to register, and called on commune chiefs to treat voters equally, regardless of party affiliation.
Chea Vichea, president of the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, said some members have complained they couldn’t get home to their villages in time to register—and weren’t able to register near where they work.
“Three days aren’t enough,” he said. “And people aren’t getting enough information. It has been a very difficult process, and we are very tired.”
Keo Sithon, 40, said he was among the people relocated to a new village in Dangkor district after a fire near the Russian Embassy.
They have been unable to obtain residency papers, and thus cannot vote, he said.
“We appeal to the NEC to solve this problem for us,” he said.