Less than a month before Cambodia goes to the polls, the country’s top election body on Wednesday acknowledged it had paid nearly $800,000 for indelible ink that its own tests showed could be removed using hair care products, an issue one opposition leader called a “huge matter” that could undermine voter trust in the June 4 commune elections.
“We cannot push forward if the most important thing—the ink—is erasable,” senior CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua said. “It cannot be accepted.”
Ms. Sochua was responding to an admission from National Election Committee (NEC) spokesman Hang Puthea, who told The Cambodia Daily in an exclusive interview on Wednesday that the NEC tested ink samples just over a month ago from its Indian supplier—and found the ink could be erased using a hair straightening liquid.
The NEC decided to go ahead with its purchase of 46,500 bottles for about $793,000 in the middle of last month because of the short time frame before the vote, Mr. Puthea said.
The NEC then returned the ink sample to Mysore Paints and Varnish Ltd. and informed them of the problem, while election experts advising the committee from the E.U. and U.S. requested new samples from other companies.
Those new samples “already arrived, but there is not enough time” before the election, Mr. Puthea said. “So we still have to order the same ink.”
On Wednesday, however, Siddalingappa Pujari, managing director of the paint company in Mysore, about 150 km south of Bangalore, said he had not heard any complaints about its product, adding that the remaining order was due to have arrived in the country by on Wednesday.
“Who told you that it can be washed off?” he asked. “No, no. It cannot be washed off.”
Mr. Pujari said the process of manufacturing and shipping the product took 15 days, a timeline that would seem to allow a new batch of ink to be made and shipped before the election if the bulk order proves faulty.
The company is the only one in India authorized to make indelible ink, which is used in elections to prevent people from voting more than once. Voters dip a finger into the ink when they sign in at the polls for a visible mark that they have cast their vote.
The NEC has delayed informing the political parties until it tests the new election supplies, which Mr. Puthea said were manufactured in a different batch from the sample, to check whether it has the agreed-upon level of 25 percent silver nitrate.
Silver nitrate is the ingredient in the ink that makes it indelible.
In spite of concerns during the 2013 national election that the ink from the same supplier could also be removed with hair care products—and reports by some Indian voters that the ink easily rubbed off in a 2014 vote—Mr. Puthea said the NEC had not been presented with evidence of any problem until it conducted its own tests.
The spokesman also defended the procurement process and the decision to wait to purchase the ink, saying the NEC had trusted the supplier because its ink was used in elections throughout the world.
“We didn’t think that the ink could be deleted because this ink is also used in other countries,” he said, adding the company bore responsibility for any faulty product.
Mr. Puthea, the former head of election watchdog the Neutral and Impartial Committee for Free and Fair Elections in Cambodia (Nicfec), said the NEC had been disappointed to discover that the ink provided in the sample could be erased, but was confident other procedures would prevent double voting.
Election watchdogs had found new voter lists to be accurate and free of duplicates, Mr. Puthea said, and voter lists would include photographs as well as a box for poll workers and the voters to tick once a ballot had been cast. Fines for infractions also increased to up to 20 million riel, or about $5,000, as part of a broad package of reforms agreed to by both parties in the wake of the disputed 2013 national vote.
But Ms. Sochua said the nine member NEC—which was seen before the reforms as an arm of the ruling party and is now split between the CPP and opposition with Mr. Puthea representing civil society—risked losing credibility with voters if it used faulty ink.
She urged all political parties and international donors to push for ink that cannot be easily removed, and dismissed claims that the body had run out of time to buy new product.
“If there is clear evidence, you have to find time,” she said. “The NEC has to be accountable to the voters.”
Ruling party spokesman Sok Eysan was more sanguine.
“We have no worries because Indian ink has been used nationwide with thousands and millions of people” in India, he said. “I believe that people who go to vote will not bring liquid for cleaning their hair and nails with them,” he said.
Sam Kuntheamy, the current head of Nicfec, the election group, said the ink testing was concerning, but remained optimistic that other procedures would stop voter fraud.
“I don’t think it’s a problem if the NEC has strictly checked [voters’ identification] before giving the ballot,” he said.
International donors contributing to the election, whom Mr. Puthea said had already been informed of the faulty ink sample, met with the NEC on Monday to discuss the ink as well as 1.5 million reserve ballots the body printed in advance of the vote.