Polls Close; Complaints Mount Over Voter List

Polling stations for Cambodia’s fifth national election closed at 3 p.m. Sunday amid widespread complaints of voters being unable to find their names on official voter lists or arriving at polling stations only to find that votes had already been cast under their name, according to a local election monitor.

Preliminary results of Sunday’s poll are expected to be released this evening.

Riot police lead a man to safety after he was attacked by angry voters and monks who had complained of being unable to find their names on the official voter list in Phnom Penh's Meanchey district. (Thomas Cristofoletti)
Riot police lead a man to safety after he was attacked by angry voters and monks who had complained of being unable to find their names on the official voter list in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district. (Thomas Cristofoletti)

“The main complaints…were people having difficulty finding their names. It happened in many places, especially in the large constituencies,” said Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Comfrel).

“We also found that some people were frustrated that their names had already been used by somebody else to vote,” Mr. Panha added.

Flawed voter lists have been at the center of criticism from election monitors and the opposition Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP) in the lead up to Sunday’s ballot, which was Cambodia’s fifth national election since 1993, when the U.N. organized the country’s first democratic ballot following decades of civil war.

In an audit released in early April, Comfrel estimated that some 1.25 million voters could lose their right to vote Sunday because 13.5 percent of registered voters could not find their names on the voter list.

Violence broke out at a ballot station inside the grounds of a pagoda in Phnom Penh’s Meanchey district as voters complained they could not find their names on the official voter list compiled by the National Election Committee (NEC).

Though the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) is widely expected to win, the merger of the country’s two opposition parties has raised expectations that Prime Minister Hun Sen’s ruling party could see a decline in its representation within the National Assembly for the first time in two decades.

The CPP holds 90 seats in the Assembly, while the Sam Rainsy Party and Human Rights Party, which have united as the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), hold 26 and three seats, respectively.

Since returning to the country on July 19, after being pardoned for what were widely believed to be politically motivated convictions that led to an 11-year prison sentence, CNRP president Sam Rainsy has been leading an opposition campaign that has seen tens of thousands of supporters turn out for rallies in urban and rural centers.

After voting in his constituency of Kompong Cham province, CNRP vice president Kem Sokha said that the opposition would not accept anything except a victory in this year’s ballot.

“If the CNRP loses this election, we will not accept the results, and we will ask the international community to intervene,” he said, adding that missing names from voter lists, along with findings from Comfrel that the indelible ink used to ensure that people cast only one ballot can be easily washed away, raised the likelihood of an unfair election.

Speaking at a press conference midway through the vote, opposition leader Sam Rainsy raised the CNRP’s concerns that violence may break out should the official election results not reflect actual popular opinion.

“I think the risk of violence comes from the fact the election is not free…a kind of election farce,” Mr. Rainsy said.

“People may get very angry and use a form of protest…. General elections are meant to challenge popular discontent—if this is not addressed, then there’s a serious risk of violence.”

The CNRP has also warned of the potential for widespread election fraud, claiming that hundreds of thousands of people are registered at more than one polling station and plans are in place to use the identities of migrant workers living in Thailand to cast votes for the CPP.

There are an estimated 9.6 million people eligible to vote in Sunday’s election.

Voter participation has declined steadily since the 1998 national election when 93 percent of the electorate cast a ballot. During the last parliamentary election in 2008, just over 75 percent of eligible voters turned out at the polls.

Due to a lengthy list of irregularities and failures to reform, Comfrel has predicted that this year’s poll will be the least fair in Cambodia’s two-decade experiment with democracy.

Among the chief complaints is the CPP’s firm grip on the country’s television stations, which has tightened during the electoral campaign with non-ruling parties only allowed 30 minutes a day on state-owned TVK to disseminate their message.

Mr. Rainsy’s return, which drew more than 100,000 people onto the streets of Phnom Penh, received no television coverage, while any TV news about the CNRP was focused on alleged criminality among the young supporters of the opposition.

Along with wildly unequal access to the broadcast media, independent election monitors have raised concerns over the lack of impartiality of the NEC, which is comprised mainly of members sympathetic to the ruling party.

Prime Minister Hun Sen cast his ballot this morning in Takhmao City, a suburb of Phnom Penh in Kandal province, where the prime minister is the CPP’s top candidate and where his main residence is located.

Mr. Rainsy, who, despite his Royal Pardon, was prevented from both standing as a candidate and also voting, spent Sunday morning visiting polling stations and markets around Phnom Penh in what he said was a personal fact-finding mission.

Mr. Rainsy said he was looking for “witnesses, indications, information, evidence.”

As for how opposition supporters will react to what Mr. Rainsy has already said will be an illegitimate election result, the opposition leader said that his party would await final results before deciding on their next move, which may include rejecting Sunday’s results.

“We will see. I have to collect evidence first. It will depend on what will happen, on what kind of evidence we collect,” he said.

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