mok kampoul district, Kandal province – Voter registration for the 2007 commune elections appeared to be running smoothly at the Bakheng commune office at 9 am Oct 4.
Registration monitors were helping a trickle of villagers find their names on lists posted outside the office, while commune officials inside corrected data of existing voters and registered new ones.
But for commune clerk Khuon Somalin, this does not mean that the elections will be a success.
“People don’t know that they could lose their chance to vote if their information is wrong, so they are not bothering to check,” she said.
Registration turnout for the April vote has so far been worryingly low, she added. Only a few hundred of the commune’s nearly 4,000 registered voters turned up in the first three days of the 20-day registration period to check their personal information.
Khuon Somalin is not alone in her fears.
Sam Rainsy Party officials and election monitors have expressed concern that many of the country’s nearly 7 million registered voters will not be able to verify their voter information by the end of the registration period Oct 20—which means many of them may not be able to vote.
Numerous villagers are too busy planting crops to visit their commune offices, officials said.
Some who do turn up to check their information lack the official documents they need to prove who they are.
If villagers don’t have proof of identity—such as a national identity card, a passport or a family book with their photo—they need to fill in a form provided by the National Election Committee that requires them to provide two photos of themselves. These can be hard to come by in the countryside, election monitors note.
Koul Panha, executive director of the Committee for Free and Fair Elections, estimated Tuesday that at least one million registered voters have information they need to correct if they want to vote.
But by Tuesday, halfway through the registration period, only 200,326 people, or around 20 percent of Koul Panha’s figure, had successfully corrected their information according to the NEC.
“I’m concerned that the…problem will affect the outcome of the election,” Koul Panha said.
NEC Secretary-General Tep Nytha said such fears are unfounded.
New procedures “cause no obstacles” and in fact make things easier for voters, he said.
According to Tep Nytha, many voters do not even need to come to the commune office. Village chiefs across the country—who are almost all CPP officials—have already handed out some five million voter notices that enable voters to confirm their information at home, he said.
If villagers petition officials in their communes, they will be able to correct mistakes, though not register, after the Oct 20 deadline, he added.
NEC officials have previously dismissed claims by the SRP that the process has been made deliberately complicated to reduce the number of people who can vote.
Government officials have also denied SRP allegations that village chiefs are being used to register CPP voters and prevent SRP supporters from doing so.
The NEC has used television and radio spots, leaflets, posters, and newspaper advertisements to inform voters of the registration process.
The committee has also distributed to commune and village officials cassette tapes and VCDs to inform people about the registration process.
And it is sending commune officials out to remote villages to register voters and have them correct their information, a process which started either Saturday or Sunday in many communes. Several commune officials voiced concern that villagers now are not coming to their commune office because they assume an official will visit their village.
“If they were coming here, we could finish in time. But they’re sitting there waiting,” said Kuy Norn, CPP chief in Batheay district’s Traing Kraing commune in Kompong Cham province.
Officials and voting monitors at his office smoked cigarettes Oct 4 as they sat waiting for villagers, whom they said rarely show up during the afternoon rains.
“Twenty days may be too short” to reach everyone, Kuy Norn said, adding that four days into the process, only a few hundred of the commune’s 5,565 registered voters had come to the office.
SRP leader Sam Rainsy said the way the registration period has been conducted is highly questionable.
“This is bad organization at best, at worst a sabotage, an organized disorder so that people can’t register,” he claimed.
“We have not seen the worst yet. We will see the worst on voting day when people are turned away at the polls,” he said.
Nhim Song, Batheay district’s Ph’av commune clerk, said that for many people, the sheer complexity of the process is proving a major hurdle.
Four days into the registration process, hundreds of the commune’s 4,656 voters had visited, but many villagers are baffled by the process and are not turning up, he said.
“The majority of people in towns understand [the process]. The majority of people in rural areas don’t,” Nhim Song said.