Voter registration for Cambodia’s first-ever commune elections got off to a slow but steady start over the weekend, with plenty of complications but no reports of intimidation or violence.
Around the country, voters trickled into schools, pagodas and other registration sites to have their pictures taken and receive laminated registration cards. In some areas, vans mounted with megaphones drove around playing taped announcements that registration had begun.
“We can afford to make the announcements once a week on Sunday mornings,” said Or Somarith, director of a registration station at Olympique commune in Phnom Penh. “We try to wake them up and push them to come until they come to register.”
Observers from each of the three major political parties—the CPP, Funcinpec and the Sam Rainsy Party—sat inside the registration rooms, looking for irregularities. Registration to vote for about 1,600 commune chiefs in February lasts until Aug 16.
“We can look, listen and we can walk around to inspect,” Funcinpec observer Heng Bun Chhay said. “But we can’t touch, react or protest. If we need to protest we write a report to our leaders.”
Outside the registration rooms, voters generally said the process was going smoothly, but there were some complications. Some voters re-using cards from the 1998 national elections were told they needed to register at a different station in the commune, which would be open on a different day. Others who came with cards from 1998 had to get new cards because they had registered in a different community from where they lived.
At the Aknuwat primary school in Phnom Penh’s Chaktomuk commune, 19-year-old Bev Chenvan registered to vote for the first time, calling the process easy.
“I am looking to vote for someone who is well-educated, has a lot of experience and has good leadership skills,” the student said.
Also milling around the registration stations were village and commune chiefs and officials—not seeking to campaign, they said, but to ensure that the process went smoothly. “If they don’t have documentation [of where they live], then I can be a witness,” said a village chief in Phsar Kandal 2 commune who declined to give her name.
Representatives from nonpartisan election monitor groups were being kept out of the stations. Sitting outside the station at Norodom Primary School, Ny Kongkea of the Coalition for Free and Fair Elections said she had not yet received a card to allow her in the station.
“But I am not too worried,” she said. “This is the law; tomorrow we will get [the cards].”
Some election monitors were not so sanguine. They reported that the registration process was still mired in government delays and closed to impartial observers. Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said the government’s National Election Committee “intended to make it difficult for us to make our observations” by holding back the observer cards.
“We have demanded the cards for four months, but they have ignored us,” he said.
Koul Panha said registration materials still have not reached some provincial areas, and that some people in the provinces aren’t aware of the three-week registration period.
Hang Puthea, an election monitor with the Neutral Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections, said some registration center locations in Phnom Penh were changed without voters’ knowledge. In Kompong Thom province, some people are being asked for more documentation than legally required and leaving in frustration, he said.
Sam Rainsy Party member Meng Ritha echoed contentions that registration materials have not arrived in some provincial areas. He said factory workers do not have enough time to return to their villages to register, and argued that the registration period should be extended by six days.
(By Richard Sine, Phann Ana, and Thet Sambath.)