A spokesman for the country’s election authority said officials in Preah Vihear province were wrong to have registered a group of soldiers who neither lived nor worked there regularly, but added that they might get a pass because the soldiers could end up monitoring polling stations there next year.
Election observers said the registrations either violated the law or, at best, marked a dangerously loose application of it.
The opposition CNRP filed a complaint with the National Election Committee (NEC) on September 22 claiming soldiers in three provinces—Battambang, Preah Vihear and Siem Reap—were allowed to register for next year’s commune elections outside of the commune where they lived or worked for the military. The election law approved last year states that anyone registering for an election must “have an address/residence in the commune where the person shall vote.”
On Monday, NEC member and spokesman Hang Puthea said the committee’s investigators had confirmed that 90 soldiers in Preah Vihear recently registered to vote in Chheb district’s Chheb II commune, in which they had no homes and which borders the commune where they were stationed with their military unit. He said they registered in Chheb II while off duty and working as day laborers on a local sugarcane plantation.
“They registered in the commune where they were cutting sugarcane and the commune chief did not understand and let them register, so there was no understanding of the procedures,” he said.
Mr. Puthea said the NEC would wait for reports from the other two provinces before deciding what to do about the 90 soldiers in Preah Vihear. But he argued that their situation was both illegal and legal.
“It was wrong and not wrong,” he said. “First, if they registered in the wrong commune, it means it was illegal. But it can be legal if the Ministry of Defense plans to send them to protect polling stations there, because the polling stations nationwide will need 70,000 people. So if the plan assigns them to protect that place, they can vote and provide security.”
Mr. Puthea said the NEC has a memorandum of understanding with the ministries of defense and interior to provide election-related security, but has not seen a plan assigning specific military units to particular polling stations.
Despite his attempt to rationalize the registration of the soldiers, the spokesman said the commune officials had been told to stop signing up out-of-commune personnel.
Koul Panha, who runs the independent Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said the NEC appeared to be stretching the meaning of residence to include polling stations where soldiers were posted for the day.
“They can manipulate the loophole in the provision of the law,” he said. “Residence, according to the new law, is not really [accompanied by] heavy conditions regarding registration.”
Mr. Panha said there was also a provision for “unclear residence,” but added that it was meant more for evictees and homeless people who still spend most of their time in the commune where they registered.
During the 2013 national election, the military was accused of moving groups of soldiers to communes where they were not registered, possibly to boost the CPP’s showing in key areas. The CNRP, which narrowly lost the official count, filed numerous complaints with the NEC over alleged irregularities, but later saw them all thrown out.
Mr. Panha said the lack of definitions in the new election law left it vulnerable to manipulation, but warned that taking advantage in hopes of adding CPP votes to battleground communes could backfire.
The government “should not pressure people to register where they want them,” he said. “They think the soldiers will vote for them, but perhaps they will not.”
Preap Kol, director of Transparency International Cambodia, said soldiers registering outside of their home or base communes were in clear breach of the law and should not be allowed to stand.
“This is illegal. It is something the NEC needs to resolve rather than explain and give justification for,” he said. “If exceptions are made on a case-by-case basis, they need to be written down in law or policy.”
The CNRP has also filed a more recent complaint with the NEC alleging registration irregularities involving monks and illegal immigrants, as well as commune chiefs failing to fulfill their related duties, according to party spokesman Yim Sovann.
Mr. Puthea said the NEC was also reviewing the new complaints.
(Additional reporting by Colin Meyn)