tonle bati district, Takeo province – At the schools and pagodas that served as polling stations in Put Sar village, Sunday felt like a holiday. Villagers mingled and gossiped and compared blackened index fingers.
There was a vague sense that magical things would start to happen if one’s candidate won—that schools, roads and hospitals would start to appear out of nowhere.
And there was an equally vague sense that something about the process was dangerous; many opposition voters said they had never experienced political intimidation, but worried anyway.
Ta Mang, 84, said his eyes aren’t so good, so he asked an election worker to mark his ballot.
“Do you want number one, number two or number three?” asked the worker.
Ta Mang didn’t know what the numbers meant. He didn’t know what party he was voting for. He picked number three. At least he had cast his vote, and he had the black fingertip to prove it.
Yiey Saw, 78, has even worse eyesight. She simply told the poll workers to mark “CPP” on her ballot.
“We need a lot of things here—water, roads,” said Sann Siep, 27, their grandson-in-law. “But we can’t talk to the officials. We just waited, until we could vote and have a say.”
Sann Siep voted for Funcinpec “because the CPP hasn’t solved the problem of illegal fishing in our commune,” he said. “I’m not sure whether [Funcinpec] can make things better, but I might as well try.”
In front of a small, dark building at Put Sar pagoda, the polling place for some 600 villagers, four women farmers happily discussed their votes for the opposition party.
“I voted for the Sam Rainsy Party because I like justice,” said Chhum Lum, 40. “I want to give them a chance to see if they can change things and develop our commune.”
Oun Chamron, 35, said a new chief should take the land that is currently government property and distribute it to poor families.
What the villagers need most is water, said Pen Seng, 53. They must travel long distances and pay vendors. They want pumps and irrigation for their rice fields.
Oun Chamron said she paid close attention to the campaigns. The Sam Rainsy Party candidates were the only ones to mention the water problem; the others only mentioned roads.
At Kleang Meoung primary school, about 30 of the 348 people who registered hadn’t voted by noon. Election officials gossiped about where they might be.
Two had died—one of old age, one of illness. Two were busy giving birth. One couple had divorced and both had moved away.
Yann Dara was the district’s only Committee for Free and Fair Elections election observer, responsible for its 135 polling stations. With independent observers spread so thin, wouldn’t it be easy to stuff ballot boxes?
“That’s impossible,” he said. “Each party has an observer at each station, and all three parties have to certify the ballot count.”
But what if one party’s observer intimidated or paid off the other two? That won’t happen, Yann Dara said.
“The people work inside [the polling station] for different parties, but outside they are friends,” he said. “Politics is inside. Outside, they all belong to the same village.”