NEC’s New Election Ink Can’t Be Erased, Spokesman Says

Testing of a new batch of election ink to be used in upcoming commune elections showed that it cannot be removed, a spokesman for the National Election Committee (NEC) said on Thursday, a day after telling reporters that samples provided by the ink supplier could be erased using hair care products.

On Wednesday, NEC spokesman Hang Puthea said the NEC had purchased almost $800,000 worth of election ink from an Indian company, Mysore Paints and Varnish Ltd., even after testing showed it could be removed using hair straightening liquid. He said they decided to go ahead because of the short time frame before the June 4 vote.

On Thursday, Mr. Puthea said the full order of 46,500 bottles arrived on Wednesday, and that the NEC testing of one bottle from each box in the order had shown that unlike the sample ink, it could not be removed.

“The ink already arrived and the NEC tested it and found it was of good quality, meaning that it cannot be washed off” using any of the same five substances as the elections body used on the sample batch, Mr. Puthea said.

The spokesman said the committee would invite political parties, NGOs and international donors to test the ink at a future date.

CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, whom the party nominated as a vice president in March, said she felt partially reassured after hearing Mr. Puthea describe various safeguards the NEC had in place to prevent double voting, including a thoroughly vetted voter registration list, the requirement to show an ID card and steep fines for offenders.

“First of all, I am satisfied that the NEC put the problem on the table,” Ms. Sochua said, adding that the committee had not made such announcements in the past.

But Ms. Sochua said the body needed to be equally upfront about its procurement and testing processes so that voters had faith in its verdicts, pointing to the abrupt change from Wednesday to on Thursday on the quality of the ink.

“Today, it’s another story,” she said. “The NEC will have to demonstrate, no matter what, how the new shipment is different from the old shipment.”

Reached before Mr. Puthea’s announcement of the new arrival, George Edgar, E.U. ambassador to Cambodia, also commended the NEC’s transparency and placed faith in election procedures.

“Domestic observers and party agents will be able to monitor the correct application of procedures at the polling stations,” he wrote in an email.

Ou Virak, head of the Future Forum think tank, said the damage to the NEC’s credibility had already been done, but that it could be restored by careful cooperation with civil society and the opposition party.

“It’s not like the ink selection process was only called for three or four months ago,” he said. “You have to know from 15 years ago there will be a 2017 election.”

The incident “should be a lesson, but I don’t know how many more lessons they need,” he said.

Lee Morgenbesser, an Australian academic and author of “Behind the Facade: Elections Under Authoritarianism in Southeast Asia,” said erasable ink turned up in elections under authoritarian regimes in Syria, Venezuela and Algeria.

“Regardless of whether other safeguards are in place, removable ink can certainly impact local vote counts (but less so the national vote count),” he wrote in an email. “This means voters might not get the representative their constituency deserved.”

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