It was a contentious law—one that many said would stifle the opinions of Cambodia’s lawmakers. But on Aug 30, the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly 93-1 in favor of the legislation that restricted what its own members could and could not say.
Despite the official tally of 93 lawmakers in favor of the law and just one against, two SRP parliamentarians, Yim Sovann and Keo Remy, later insisted they had both voted no.
“I even checked with the secretary [who recorded the votes]…and he assured me I voted ‘no,’” Yim Sovann said.
A reporter at the Assembly noticed that Yim Sovann’s colleague Keo Remy did not raise his hand to vote for the draft law, despite only one “no” vote being registered that day.
Under the current system of voting, parliamentarians who step out of the Assembly during a vote could very well be counted as voting in favor of something that they had no intention of supporting.
Some parliamentarians even claim that inaccurate vote tallies are very common.
“The way they count…is not precise,” SRP lawmaker Son Chhay said. “We have complained a lot.”
But vote-count errors could easily be resolved if the Assembly simply used the high-tech electronic voting system that was installed several years ago. To date, that system has never been used.
Currently, Assembly members raise their hands to vote in favor or against and are counted by three “session secretaries”—one from each political party.
Each secretary counts the raised hands in their section of the Assembly floor and the three tallies are then added together. This final number is subtracted from the total number of parliamentarians who signed an Assembly attendance sheet on that day.
There is only one count of “yes” votes, and no distinction made between those who oppose, abstain or happen to be out of the room during a vote.
Sometimes session secretaries will take shortcuts and only count those opposed to a vote, and deduct that number from the total who signed the attendance sheet, Son Chhay said.
That means that anyone absent from the room during the vote could become a supporter by default.
The Assembly, Son Chhay said, purchased an electronic voting system in 1999 or 2000 for around $300,000. Sitting atop of every parliamentarian’s desk is a little black computer with an attached microphone and a series of five buttons for voting.
Hanging from the ceiling to the left of the Assembly president’s podium is a small, bulky scoreboard that would display the electronic vote tallies to the room: For and against votes, as well as abstentions.
Even so, the system has never been used.
Funcinpec lawmaker Khieu San, who supports the idea of electronic voting, said that the Assembly continues to vote by show of hands because most lawmakers are old-fashioned and have not warmed up to electronic gadgetry.
There is also an element of fear, Khieu San conceded.
“People are scared that [parliamentarians] will not vote along party lines” if they don’t have to publicly raise their hands, he said.
Senior CPP lawmaker Ek Sam Ol said the electronic system was never used because of unspecified “technical difficulties.” Nevertheless, the old system is better, he said.
“I think the hand raising is better than the electronic [voting],” Ek Sam Ol said.
“Sometimes I do not trust electronic voting systems because they are not human beings,” he said. “We have three secretaries counting, this is better.”
Many parliamentary systems around the world use simple systems like hand raising. In Britain, most votes are carried by parliamentarians yelling out their opinion—with sheer volume winning the day. But if a vote is close, members can dispute the result.
The lawmakers then file into separate rooms according to how they plan to vote. Their decisions are individually recorded in writing and made available to the public.
In the case of the Aug 30 draft law limiting the speech of lawmakers, the alleged miscount or either one or two “no” votes had no impact on the passage of the legislation, but votes on other controversial laws have been much closer.
Yim Sovann and Ek Sam Ol said that any member of the Assembly can dispute a vote tally, and a re-raising of hands can be called for—but it is counted by the same method.
Even so, several lawmakers said that no vote count has ever been disputed on the Assembly floor.
(Additional reporting by Lor Chandara)