Registration Struggles Along in Provinces

prey veng town, Prey Veng province – Outside the National Election Committee headquarters in this run-down provincial capital, about a dozen officials waited in the shade.

They had been assigned to registration centers across the prov­ince, one of Cambodia’s poorest. And they were waiting because they had received a radio message that morning:

“The film may be on its way,” the caller said.

In Prey Veng, there are more than 1,000 election officials. Not a single one has been paid since June 27.

Most of the registration centers had run out of film, so that they cannot manufacture new voter ID cards.

But By Ban, chief of the provincial election committee, refused to be discouraged.

“We are so used to difficulties. This is not so bad,” he said.

His workers understand the government’s problems, and have faith that they will be paid eventually, By Ban said. More film was coming—but he was just not sure when.

The first-ever commune elections, scheduled for Feb­ruary, are so important that the problems facing NEC workers fade into insignificance, By Ban said.

“All of us working here, we have an understanding. We have a commitment to work for the nation, and bring democracy to the na­tion,” the retired French teacher said.

The situation in Prey Veng is typ­ical of other rural areas in Cambodia, observers say. Bad roads, flooding, and a lack of supplies for registration centers have delayed the registration process.

As of last week, about 52 percent of the province’s 570,922 eligible voters in 116 communes had registered. The NEC has fielded 168 registration teams in Prey Veng, staffing 1,104 stations for three days each.

At least, that was the original plan. But plans made in Phnom Penh sometimes collapse in the countryside, where heavy rains can turn a passable road into a quagmire without warning.

Flooding has already plagued Prey Veng registration centers on the western edge of the province, and along the border with Vietnam, By Ban said. At least 25 communes have flooded “and others are difficult to reach by bad roads,” he added.

In Prey Veng, the roads aren’t bad, they are wretched. Even the main, paved road from Route 1 north to the provincial capital was gnawed away by last year’s flooding, and repair work has been minimal.

Many dirt roads are worse, veering from passable to huge muddy pits dozens of times per kilometer.

“We use boats and oxcarts. Some areas, we can use trucks. In others, motorcycles can’t do it. We have to walk and carry the materials on our backs,” By Ban said.

Like so many problems in Cambodia, this one comes down to money. The NEC originally sought $24 million to pay for the election, but that was eventually trimmed back to $18 million.

Registration alone was budgeted at $4 million, for materials, staff, training, and voter education. The Cambodian government has agreed to spend about $2.5 million, and has come up with $1.9 million of that already.

Donor nations are expected to contribute another $15 million, but that money has not yet arrived, observers say.

“It’s not like 1998, when the [United Nations Development Program] coordinated everything. This time, individual donors are making their own arrangements,” one election observer said.

That means about 10,000 registration workers hired in June have not yet been paid. At an average salary of $3.50 per day, with most workers expecting to work for 28 days, the NEC will be $1 million in debt on salaries alone by the end of the registration period.

“The government will pay them as soon as possible. We heard that the Finance Ministry has approved the payrolls—we just have to wait to see if the treasury has enough money,” NEC Media Committee Chairman Prum Nhean Vicheth said.

It’s difficult to tell when donor money might arrive. The German government and the UNDP have each contributed about $220,000 already, but that money is earmarked for education and a new computer system. Australia has contributed a comparable amount for voter education.

The European Union, which contributed $11.5 million in 1998, has pledged technical assistance and “support” but specified no dollar amount. Japan, Cambodia’s largest donor, has said it will “study” the matter.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking on the registration period, which is due to end Thursday. Several groups, including the Sam Rainsy Party and the Free Trade Union of the Workers of the Kingdom of Cambodia, are pressing hard for an extension of the registration period, which will cost yet more money.

Two election watchdog groups, the Committee for Free and Fair Elections and the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free Elections, said Saturday the percentage of voters registered is 30 percent behind where it was in 1998, and is unacceptably low.

In addition to minor problems, the two groups said they found major problems, including material shortages, at nine registration stations, or about 0.2 percent of the 4,400 registration stations surveyed.

The two groups are also calling for an extended registration period.

By Ban said he is convinced that the registration effort will ultimately be successful.

“Cambodian citizens are very happy with this election, where local people can choose whoever they want to lead them. Even with the difficulties, even with us not getting paid, we think that this grass-roots democracy gives the people more power,” he said.

A few kilometers outside Prey Veng town, at the Ba Bong pagoda in Peam Ror district, one of the few registration centers that still had film was running well.

Sim Vanna, the deputy commune election committee chief, said the pay issue isn’t such a big problem while they are posted at the pagoda. “At least here, we stay with the monks, and they feed us,” he said, smiling.

Each potential voter is closely observed by NEC registration workers, members of the three major parties and observers from COMFREL and NICFEC.

It’s quite a gamut to run, but Huy Ny, 29, said he emerged unscathed after just a few minutes, his new voter ID card in hand.

“That wasn’t so bad. I only had to wait a few minutes. I am glad to do it. I love my village, and I hope this election will help,” he said.

Huy Ny paused for a minute as if gathering his thoughts.

“It seems to be going smoothly,” he said. “I don’t think there will be any violence, and I hope there won’t be. It would be bad for Cambodia’s image.”


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